As far as windfalls go, Tom's Restaurant, a mediocre diner on 112th and Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has had it plenty good. Seinfeld creator Larry David had at one time eaten there, so in 1989 when he was looking for a location for his show about nothing — then called The Seinfeld Chronicles — David chose Tom's. As any Seinfeld fan knows, George, Elaine, Kramer and Jerry didn't actually eat there. The interiors were shot on a soundstage in Los Angeles. But the frontage was picturesque and it was thus that the diner became, perhaps, the most famous one since Edward Hopper's Nighthawks.
In his documentary, Tom's Restaurant: A Documentary About
Nothing Everything, the young Italian director Gianfranco Morini sets out to capture the soul of the real Tom's Restaurant, to peer beyond the famous façade into its inner life. Here's the problem: It doesn't really have any. Not innately, anyhow, and certainly not as captured by Morini's inexorably patient camera.
Instead of life, Morini fixates on a few regulars, men and women (but mostly men), who are so very regular in their irregularity. There are a few professors, of varying levels of fame. Cornel West, for instance, says he eats 95% of his meals at Tom's Restaurant, and a doe eyed cupid of a classics professor named David Sidorsky. There are a few musicians: a former Marine turned free-spirited nomad named Shon and a wizened geezer guitarist with halo hair and a Pontormo face named Bob Rose. The latter provided the guitar parts for Twin Peaks and was the original guitarist for The David Letterman Show.
Of course, Morini spends a lot of time with the sharp minded proprietor of Tom's, a guy with a rugged Grecian face named Mike Zoulis. The history of Tom's Restaurant is the history of thousands of Greek diners, a singular striver who gains ownership which, through a process of generational mitosis, divides and divides into ever smaller familial fractional shares. Mike shares ownership with clutch of cousins and cousins of cousins and in-laws and outlaws and in-between-laws. Zoulis is fairly likeable and one can't help but admire his shrewdness. When Suzanne Vega, who wrote the song "Tom's Diner" about Tom's Restaurant, asks whether he might sell her mugs by the register, he denies her. "I'm already selling mugs," he says.
In the main, the documentary is a series of very long anecdotes told by patrons. These are marred by Morini's propensity for frequent cuts, which gives to even the most calm speaker an epileptic twitch. These men and women relate banal anecdotes, like in a really boring Studs Terkel book. A young artist comes to New York, finds it hard. A playwright comes to New York, starts a successful Twitter account (@SeinfeldToday), now works at Buzzfeed. An old man briefly becomes a television star by singing rap music. A woman from the projects in Harlem named, variously, as per the press material, "Ms. Elfie" or "Mrs. Alfie," neither being her given name, has eaten the same meal for four years. But even this cosmetically interesting story is left sufficiently vague as to be but mental flotsam.
There are two exceptions and both come in the last twenty minutes of the film (which are the only twenty minutes I can recommend). The first unforgettable character is a former homeless crack addict named Christopher Olivier who used to do petty jobs for the restaurant like shoveling sidewalks. For years, Olivier was addicted to crack cocaine but now he's clean five years, with a job and an apartment in Chelsea (with a flatscreen television) and he makes the trek uptown to prove to the staff and more importantly himself that he is still clean. Though his cadence is slow and eyes hooded, when Olivier speaks a thinly submerged electricity rattles his bones into his haw. For the duration he is on film — about five minutes — I couldn't take my eyes away. What life does he lead once he steps from Tom's threshold? He is a magnetic devourer of thoughts and attention. The narrative he alludes to, in which this appearance is no doubt a momentary cameo, seems ten times as interesting as the movie we're watching.
The other exception is a bald man with sad eyes named Michael Valmas. Valmas could be Pygmalioned alive from a marble bust of a tragic Greek hero. And he is all too human. His flesh is gummy and his features crinkle like a leaky bouncy castle. A Greek-American, Valmas waxes poetic about the working class he came from. His father, he says, had him late (at age 56) and worked 14 hour days in greasy spoons such as Tom's.
For the last ten or so minutes, the camera stays trained on Valmas' lumpy profile as he relates the story of watching the New York Knicks center Willis Reed's tremendous fortitude in the ultimately successful contest for 1970 Championships. Reed had pulled a hip muscle in Game 5, sat out Game 6 (the Lakers won) and reappeared briefly at Madison Square Garden for Game 7. The game occurred shortly after Valmas' father died.
Valmas is clearly on the verge of tears the entire time and it was unclear why. But then he drops the anvil: "I didn't understand at the time but it kind of helped set me straight. Willis Reed went to work that night. Just as my father had done, thousands of time. I figured, you know what? My heroes went to work and I gotta get to work too." Plates clatter in the film, we weep at home, and it just sneaks up on you.
There are vast moments of boredom and annoyance in this film, the cinematic equivalent of waiting for a delayed train. But does that make it a bad movie? No, it's a movie about a diner, and diners themselves are vast monuments to boredom. They are waiting rooms with kitchens.
I wish, perhaps, Morini had knit the regulars together, into some sort of community, as opposed to himself and his camera being the sole hub. I wish he had edited better, cut down on the inanity. But what could one really expect? The promise and the flaw are right there in the title. It's a documentary about nothing and then, suddenly and for a moment, everything too.
RATING: 2 out of 5 stars.