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A Serving of Sentimentality

'Spitfire Grill' is raised a notch by the strong ensemble acting led by Alison Elliott.


A single convincing performance can elevate an imperfect movie, which is what Alison Elliott's graceful acting does for "The Spitfire Grill."

Elliott plays Perchance Talbott ("Percy will do," she says in her attractive country way), a young woman possessed of more troubles than years, with a directness and believability that force us to care about the film she appears in. Which is not always easy.

The feature writing and directing debut of TV veteran Lee David Zlotoff, the creator of "MacGyver" and supervising producer of "Remington Steele," "Spitfire Grill" has been made with perhaps too much care and concern. Earnest and over-plotted, it ties itself up into a package so neat you can't help but want to pick away at its edges.

Yet, troublesome as its on-the-nose elements are, "Spitfire Grill's" strengths in the acting department work as a counterbalance. Elliott's performance, strong in and of itself, also considerably raises the usual level of co-stars Ellen Burstyn and Marcia Gay Harden, and the three actresses sustain one another in a way that recalls the ensemble work in "Fried Green Tomatoes."

"Spitfire Grill" won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival (under the title "Care of the Spitfire Grill") and also gained attention when Castle Rock Entertainment paid a reported $10 million for distribution rights, the most ever bid for a film sold out of the festival.

Neither of these events are surprises because "Spitfire" is the kind of sentimental/melodramatic tale that Hollywood has lost the confidence to make without big stars and bigger budgets but audiences continue to favor any way they can get them.

And though much has been made of the film's financing by the Sacred Heart League, determined to "present the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition," there is almost nothing here (aside from naming the film's location Gilead) that the most ardent secularist could either notice or object to.

Rural Southern accent notwithstanding, Percy Talbott is introduced dispensing tourist information about Maine over the telephone. "I don't believe I could leave Maine now if I wanted to," she says enthusiastically, which is something of a joke because Percy is answering the phone from a state prison, where she is finishing up a five-year sentence for manslaughter.

Almost on a whim, Percy picks Gilead as the town to settle in after her release. Ever feisty, she arrives on a cold and wintry night, an orphan bundled up against the storm, and because Gilead is the kind of place where every deviation from the norm is suspicious, no one is particularly happy to see her.

Percy finds work, room and board as a waitress in the Spitfire Grill, the bustling local eatery run by Hannah Ferguson (Burstyn), a self-described "old sour apple" whose bad hip makes her even more cantankerous than she would ordinarily be. But not much.

Watching over Hannah more than she likes is her nephew Nahum Goddard (Will Patton), a real estate broker with a naturally suspicious streak who worries about ex-con Percy living with his aunt. A character so obviously a troublemaker that he might as well be wearing a sign around his neck, Nahum is the most visible example of the over-predictability that dogs "Spitfire" and works against its better instincts.

When Hannah has an accident and can't run the Grill, Percy is joined by Nahum's wife, Shelby (Harden), a nervous soul browbeaten by her husband to the point where she can hardly speak. Watching these three women slowly and tentatively come to appreciate one another is as satisfying a pleasure as "Spitfire" provides.


Hannah's accident also means that she has to delegate her most mysterious chore, leaving a sack of food out back for an unnamed and unseen individual. Percy gets the job and is soon more intrigued by this shadowy figure than the local young man (Kieran Mulroney) who takes an earnest shine to her.

"Spitfire Grill's" other plot point involves the restaurant itself, which Hannah has been thinking about selling for years. Percy comes up with the idea of a combination essay contest and raffle, inviting contestants from around the country to send $100 along with a few words as to why the place should be theirs.

Given how obvious the mysteries are in Gilead, a town with more secrets than sense, audiences may not share the film's excessive fascination with its plot and will more likely bond with its lively female characters. Especially Percy.

Actress Elliott, who made a strong impression in a completely different role opposite Peter Gallagher in Steven Soderbergh's "The Underneath," uses her expressiveness to put a considerable amount of shading into this performance.

Alternately lost and cocky, Elliott's Percy exposes the vulnerability that is half-hidden under her surface wariness. Even sore-thumb lines like "You can say that twice and mean it" do not mar the strength of her work. More than anything, you feel Percy's yearning for connection, a yearning this film only partially satisfies.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic elements. Times guidelines: adult themes.


'The Spitfire Grill'

Alison Elliott: Percy Talbott

Ellen Burstyn: Hannah Ferguson

Marcia Gay Harden: Shelby Goddard

Will Patton: Nahum Goddard

Kieran Mulroney: Joe Sperling

Castle Rock Entertainment presents a Gregory production, in association with the Mendocino Corp., released by Columbia Pictures. Director Lee David Zlotoff. Producer Forrest Murray. Executive producer Warren G. Stitt. Screenplay Lee David Zlotoff. Cinematographer Rob Draper. Editor Margie Goodspeed. Costumes Louise Mingenbach. Music James Horner. Production design Howard Cummings. Art director Peter Borck. Set decorator Larry Dias. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.

* Exclusively at AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City, (310) 553-8900.

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