An amusing light comedy, The Deli presents a cross section of Brooklynese characters that are easy to like and fun to watch. They go through some undemanding sitcom turns but are interesting enough to both keep our attention and to make us care about them. The main character is a loveable prize fool. Overall the picture is a collection of isolated routines with guest actors wandering into the deli for vignettes. Many don't advance the story, and the ending seems solved too easily without enough dramatic or comedic interaction between the characters. But for a generous sampling of interesting and fun characters, it's hard to go wrong here.
Even better, the denizens of this corner of Brooklyn don't talk a blue streak of profanity. Maybe that's unrealistic, but it's a lot easier on the ears than your average Do the Right Thing knockoff.
The independent production was reportedly well-received at festivals but didn't attract a major release; it did well on cable and looks exceedingly handsome on this Synapse DVD.
It's all familiar stuff - the local nobody bets a lot of money he doesn't have and the only way to keep his store, save his mother from a heart attack and not have to kill himself is to win an even riskier bet. That weak story hook is the only one in sight, but The Deli populates the screen with enough fun characters to keep things rolling nicely.
Mike Starr's Johnny is a huge man with an innocent face, addicted to gambling and in heavy denial about it. His mother lectures him on the subject while betting on the side but at least she's betting money she has. Starr's been in interesting small parts since 1980, usually as a lummox in gangster pix like Goodfellas and Miller's Crossing; he got a nice break as a reporter in The Hudsucker Proxy. Here he gets to be loveable, an excellent choice.
The most sensible character behind the counter is Andy, the even-tempered girl magnet. Matt Keeslar has had an excellent run, appearing in Waiting for Guffman, Splendor, Steven King's Rose Red and the television version of Dune as Feyd-Rautha.
Brian Vincent's role is a bit too exaggerated for comfort, but he does do some nice schtick as a completely imbecilic guy you wouldn't trust to walk your dog. He gets some of the best lines though, taking everything that's said literally. He develops a screwy little relationship with a fellow dimwit played by the very welcome Heather Matarazzo of Welcome to the Dollhouse. Debi Mazar (Goodfellas, Bullets over Broadway) is Heather's older sister and the girlfriend of a wiseguy (Frank Vincent); their arguments are some of the best moments in the movie.
Judith Malina is a wonderful mother for the show; she's far more animated than when she played Granma in The Addams Family ten years earlier, and she looks younger too! She lays on the Italian mama act nice and thick, but the tension she and Mike Starr generate is what holds the film together.
Of the other cameo bits, Ice-T is a standout playing completely in character and bringing substantial subtlety and flair to the role of an irate meat salesman. David Johansen's two brief bits are more typical - effective, but completely unrelated to the forward motion of the movie. Likewise the other goons and gals who wander in, often only once, to deliver some semi-improv silliness. All the girls are drop-dead beautiful but nothing seems to come of any of their sub-plots; Andy's steady girl just complains about never seeing him and we get a lot of unresolved flirting with the big mobster's knockout daughter.
Jerry Stiller, Tony Sirico and Burt young make a nice triumvirate of hoods who threaten Johnny and gloat over his misfortune, but the unambitious screenplay doesn't use them enough. Perhaps they were all one-day players, but the film's conclusion doesn't even establish their reactions to the result of Johnny's wild bet, and we're left hanging with most of the thin story threads unresolved. A bit more structure and The Deli could have been a much more effective story instead of a pleasant springboard for a lot of talented actors. The great achievement of this film should be awarded to casting director Judy Henderson, or whoever was responsible for rounding up this bunch. There's even a small bit for Shirley Stoler, our favorite from Miami Blues and The Honeymoon Killers. It's her last film.
Synapse's DVD of The Deli presents John Gallagher's movie quite well. The enhanced transfer gives the limited-setup picture a good look, and only one scene has the flaw of a slight instability, and then only for a few seconds. The audio is Dolby Digital mono which is a shame considering the eclectic and effective musical bits used from old soundtracks, like Nino Rota's Il Bidone.
The extras include a commentary from the director (who also provides a couple of liner note essays, one about hiring Ice-T) and a selection of deleted scenes.
If you like New York-based comedy and want to see a great cast go through some nice semi-improvised scenes, The Deli will be a satisfying picture.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Deli rates: