A few miracles would have helped Review: For all its orderliness and its Christian backers, 'Spitfire Grill' comes across as phony.

September 06, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

"The Spitfire Grill," already bearing the whiff of the religious, does in fact turn out to be one of the most orthodox movies to come down the pike since "Ben-Hur." Its orthodoxy, however, is not to Christian dogma so much as to dramatic doctrine.

It's so tidily constructed in three neat acts around a stack-up of themes and subthemes, with a sprinkling of Christian symbols to give it that lilt of seriousness it might not otherwise enjoy, that it comes to seem more like a dissertation on drama than a drama itself.

Its greatest accomplishment, however, is not dramatic but tactical: It confounded a bunch of secular critics who felt tricked after awarding it a prize at the Sundance Film Festival when they realized it had been produced by a Catholic charities group.

How dare those Catholics think they have the same right of free expression as secular liberals? Who do they think they are, anyway, members of the cognitive elite? The next thing you know, they'll be opening their own schools, making the students wear uniforms and actually learning reading, writing and the difference between right and wrong! And if critics could look at the most avowedly religious movie to come alongsince the celestial clambake and chariot race starring Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd, and not get it, that just shows how vicious these religious people must be, hiding their messages from people with authentic master's degrees in semiotics!

Where is Madalyn Murray O'Hair when you need her?

The movie is a fable of redemption, in which a stranger comes to a small town and by her purity of spirit heals all the rents in the town's beaten soul; she liberates the unliberated and soothes the unsoothed; she even talks to the animals. She's like a balm in Gilead; oops, she is a balm in Gilead, Gilead, Maine, that is.

In the '40s, they'd have called it "The Song of Bernadette," and it would have been full of moments of hokey uplift with No. 18 lights beaming down from the scaffolding out of the frame in imitation of God's benevolent gaze. Here, the filmmakers are a good deal more subtle, and that's what really upset the boys with the pens with the lights on them. You can't expect critics to get subtlety, can you?

So in the modern religious movie, there are no celestial choirs pounding away, no strange sources of radiant light, no avuncular, cute-as-a-button angels. Faith is a quiet expression of beatific gazes and good behavior for no apparent reason except redemption. Too bad it feels just as phony, and in fact "Spitfire Grill" could have used a few miracles or weeping virgins statuary to keep it lively. It could also have used some Spitfires.

Percy Talbot (Alison Elliott), recently released from a Maine penitentiary after serving five years for a crime whose mystery is dangled like a Christmas tree ornament throughout the film, comes to Gilead to escape, to begin anew. Spunky and Southern, she seems the least likely new citizen of the flinty, chilly, rock-hard place. But her spunk soon impresses her new employer, the owner of the dilapidated grill of the title, and soon enough she's become a fixture.

One immediate problem is that everyone in the movie seems to be someone else. Crusty Hannah Ferguson, the grill owner played by Ellen Burstyn under a spritz of reddish hair, seems to be Katharine Hepburn, doing the plucky widow thing that endeared her to generations of Americans. Shelby Goddard, a somewhat vague and repressed townie, is played by Marcia Gay Harden, but she seems to be Linda Hamilton. Will Paton, as her nasty husband Nahum, seems to be Kevin Bacon in some mid-level, review-desperate "class" production. Nobody feels quite real; they're all versions.

The writer-director, Lee David Zlotoff, doesn't have a lot of skill at integrating his neat little subplots into the larger story: a "lost son/wild child" gimmick, an "own-this-pub" essay contest and a manhunt all come and go without really touching each other, or touching us either.

The best thing in the movie is Elliott, the only one who doesn't know she's a symbol and not a person. Alas, at one excruciating moment, she is made to sing "Balm in Gilead," which connects with no aspect of her character except the director's insistence on belting us in the face with a brass epiphany. I'm thinking, what is this, "Hootenanny"?

'The Spitfire Grill'

Starring Alison Elliott and Ellen Burstyn

Directed by Lee David Zlotoff

Released by Castle Rock

Rating PG-13 (adult themes)

Sun score** 1/2

Pub Date: 9/06/96

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