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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review: Waffle Street

From Finance to Fries

By Chris Sabga



Release Date: September 24, 2015 – U.S.
Rating: TV-PG
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 86 minutes
Directors: Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms
Writers: Autumn McAlpin, Eshom Nelms, 
Ian Nelms
Cast: James Lafferty, Danny Glover, 
Julie Gonzalo, Dale Dickey, Marshall Bell, 
Ernie Lively, William Knight, Adam Johnson, 
Yolanda Wood, Aubrey Reynolds, Sila Agavale, 
Jason Tatom, Michelle Lang


Papa's Chicken and Waffles is a combination of two of my favorite greasy spoons: Steak 'n Shake and Waffle House. When a financial fat cat loses his job, his next move – naturally – is to become a restaurant server. James Adams (James Lafferty) wants to do "honest" work like his father and grandfather (Ernie Lively and William Knight) before him. In a series of "comedic" vignettes, he applies to various "blue collar" jobs – auto mechanic, construction worker – but gets turned down for all of them. He's the picture of corporate cluelessness: clean cut, in a suit and tie, with no experience fixing cars or laying bricks. But he's a "quick learner," he says. That's enough to get him into Papa's – well, that and someone just quit right before he walked in.

Of course, a go-getter like James isn't content with waiting tables and sweeping floors for long. He crunches the numbers and sees the profit potential in buying his own Papa's Chicken and Waffles franchise. As luck would have it, the very one he's working in is up for sale. There's one hitch, though: According to the previous owner (played by "Total Recall's" Marshall Bell) and the Papa's handbook, James has to put in 1,000 hours of work before he can become eligible to buy it. That means taking double-shifts and working into the wee hours of the morning. Midnights at Papa's are like something out of an apocalyptic horror movie.

Throughout all of this, I never truly believed for a second that his long-suffering wife, Becky (Julie Gonzalo), would patiently and blindly go along with a cockamamie plan like this for as long as she did. (James is the type of guy who would probably use a word like "cockamamie.") I was never quite convinced. As it turns out, there's a reason for that: "Waffle Street" is based on a true story, but according to the memoir of the same name, "the screenwriter and directors created the plot device of my attempting to purchase the restaurant from the existing franchisee." Disappointing, but that's Hollywood! At least it explains why the wife's behavior never felt grounded in reality.

Meanwhile, Eddie, the grill cook (Danny Glover), warns James that a lot of people have talked about owning their own Papa's but none of them have ever done it. The best performance in the film probably comes from Glover, who is an actor I haven't always liked. While some of his dialogue can be ridiculous and over-the-top ("Well, consider me your waffle daddy!"), his character is probably the most realistic and grounded – at least at times. (This movie, as demonstrated by the absurd "waffle daddy" line, can't always help itself.) Glover's shining moment comes near the end. His character delivers a passionate speech about how much he loves grilling food. It doesn't feel like acting.

One nice touch: "Waffle Street" populates itself with the types of eccentric characters you'd expect to find in a 24-hour diner – Crazy Kathy (Dale Dickey), a disheveled customer always asking to borrow money; Jacqui (Yolanda Wood), the wise, friendly, and hard-working African-American who would be a stereotype if there weren't so many other similar people in various true stories about the restaurant business; Mary (Aubrey Reynolds), the teen or twenty-something server who's either just passing through or will end up becoming a lifer; Manuel (Sila Agavale), who is simply trying to earn a wage and keep his ahead above water; Matthew (Adam Johnson), the ponytailed manager with relationship issues; and Larry (Jason Tatom), a power-mad prick who isn't there to make friends and loves to write citations.

This story reminded me very much of the memoir by Michael Gates Gill, "How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else." His childhood was spent around literary legends like Robert Frost, followed by an Ivy League education and a six-figure salary. In his sixties, he lost it all and ended up cleaning toilets at Starbucks. Now, that would make a great movie. (Supposedly, it's "in development.")

"Waffle Street" could easily be called "White Privilege: The Movie." There's nothing subtle about the main character, any of the other performances, the dialogue, or the film in general. James may as well have the word "earnest" stamped on his forehead like a scarlet letter. But he – and this movie – won me over anyway. Yes, it's that gosh darn earnestness of his that did it. (James would probably use a phrase like "gosh darn.") This is not a great film, but it's warm, pleasant, and doesn't have a malicious bone in its body. Plus, it made me consider the possibility – at least for a fleeting moment – of opening up my very own Steak 'n Shake or Waffle House.  

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