It’s hardly uncommon for sitcom stars to make their way into the world of feature film. Unfortunately, once there they usually end up acting the same character over and over again. Matthew Perry has turned every role he’s played into Chandler Bing under another name. Seriously, man, spread your wings a little. When TV comedic actors do open themselves up a little to try different things it can be exciting and fascinating to watch. With Grilled both Ray Romano and Kevin James take that leap of faith into the arms of director Jason Ensler, who guides them masterfuly into a whole new realm of comedy. Dark, dry humor really isn’t a forte for either Romano or James. Both have their roots in stand up comedy with progressive backgrounds playing lovable, stereotypically flawed sitcom husband/father figures. Ensler draws them out of their slightly rutted molds, skips the frying pan and drops them straight into the fire of playing completely different roles written in an entirely different style. The road is a bumpy one for both the characters and the actors, but in the end they all rise to the challenge.
Maurice (Romano) and Dave (James) are a pair of door-to-door packaged premium meat salesmen, badly in need of making some serious sales. Maurice needs the cash to stay enrolled in Acupuncture university (he’s one semester away from his “doctorate”), a vision he hopes would make his late father proud. Dave, a devoted and loving dad, is frantic to get the funds needed to buy his adoring daughter the perfect birthday gift thereby winning back the confidence of his estranged wife.
On the hottest day of the year, and their last day as salesmen if they don’t get their act together, chance after chance pass the duo by as their mounting anxiety loses them each subsequent sale. Their last hope is a mysteriously gorgeous foreign woman who seems to be talking about something else when she says she’s interested in their meat. Just when she’s about to sign on the dotted line, a frantic phone call from her suicidal best friend sends the two men down a bizarre path of desperation that leads into the heart of the Jewish mafia (oy vey!).
The story is rife with opportunity for dark and subtle humor (it doesn’t get much better than Burt Reynolds as a beef loving Jewish mob lord). Screenwriter William Tepper doesn’t bother with unnecessary details or explanations, leaving more room for the comedy. Ensler and his cast do a brilliant job filling in the blanks. The movie drags at points, something that might be necessary to help us feel the low points of Maurice and Dave’s day. Still, the movie lacks finesse and polish, forgivable given that its Ensler’s first feature film. Many notable directors have done worse on their first go ‘rounds.
Romano surprised me with his conversion into the unscrupulous, oily haired Maurice. Complete with cheap suit and five-day-old stubble, he almost comes across like a quirky combination of Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega and Shelley Levene from Glengarry Glen Ross. Yeah, I never thought I’d say that about Ray Romano either. James’ transformation from his sitcom persona isn’t quite so complete, but he proves at least that he’s got the chops to do stuff besides supporting roles in movies like Hitch.
Ensler’s film reminds me, in principal, of Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. Even though it’s the director’s first film and everything is terribly rough around the edges, there’s a subtle genius and visionary eye working behind the scenes. It’s easy to tell there’s some serious potential for greatness in his style. Hopefully that’s where the comparison ends. Anderson has since descended into a downward spiral of increasingly self-indulgent and unentertaining movies starring Owen Wilson. With any luck Ensler will move forward to greater things than that. Grilled, despite its all star cast of award winners and icons, never received a theatrical release. While that’s no huge loss in the sense that this isn’t the kind of movie experience that requires a big screen and surround sound speakers, it’s still a shame that the movie didn’t get the attention that comes from being on the big screen. Normally direct-to-DVD means something is half-baked and hardly worth watching. That’s the farthest thing from the truth for this film.
In the way of bonus features this disc offers precious little. A fairly lengthy documentary on the making of the movie makes for a great companion piece. Ensler spends some time talking about the process by which he helped stretch Romano and James into their unfamiliar acting roles. What makes it great is that he isn’t arrogant about it. He’s articulate, soft-spoken and passionately thoughtful about his craft. It’s kind of like listening to a younger Stephen Spielberg discussing his work. I found myself getting excited to see what his next project will be. Romano and James play it pretty straight in the documentary. We get to see the two real-life best friends banter in a more playful manner in a separate interview. It’s 1:00 AM and the two have just finished filming a scene in which they’re crammed into a car trunk together. The timing is perfect to watch the two rib each other while talking in depth about their experience working on the film, how they came to be involved, and what it’s like working with Burt Reynolds. OK, that last part is a little dull, but the rest is a lot of fun to watch.
There’s a deleted scene thrown in there, probably cut out for its tasteless mockery of American obesity. It’s good for an uncomfortable laugh or two. The painfully obvious omission from the disc is an outtakes reel. With stars like Romano and James and a cast that includes Burt Reynolds, Juliette Lewis, Michael Rappaport and Eric Allan Kramer, you know there must be hours of hilarious cuts and rehearsal scenes. Maybe they were afraid it would upstage the movie? I don’t know, but had they thrown that in this would be a nearly perfect package.
If you missed this on in theaters (which I know you all did), then be sure to pick up a copy next time you’re at the rental stores. “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “King of Queens” fans beware: this one gets its R rating for the kind of language and violence reserved for cable and won’t be appreciated by folks who love Ray and Kevin exclusively for their family comedies.