Judge Aaron Bossig reminds us that "deli" is short for "delicatessen" and not "half baked indie film with too many extraneous characters."
A comedy with the works.
The Deli meanders about, with moments both good and bad. Whether you choose to focus on the good or the bad is up to you.
Facts of the Case
After a hefty bet goes sour, delicatessen owner Johnny Amico finds himself buried in debt: debt to his bookie, debt to his customers, debt to his suppliers, and even debt to his own mother. Needing to have all the money by the end of the week, Johnny (Mike Starr, Dumb and Dumber) pulls out all the stops to pay back lots of angry people, and maybe even come out ahead.
The real charm of The Deli is its wide assortment of characters, from the starring roles of Johnny through Andy to Pinky, the slow-witted helper. To that, we pile on mountains of lesser roles and cameos, featuring crowd-pleasing faces like Jerry Stiller, Ice T, and Heather Matarazzo. Between actors that were famous at the time and actors that have achieved popularity in more recent years, The Deli practically has an all-star cast.
During the commentary, you'll hear the filmmakers muse about how the structure of the movie keeps the constant cameos refreshing and unobtrusive, rather than forcing the actors to fight for screen time. On this point, director John Gallagher and his cohorts are completely right. The Deli is set up as a simple narrative, taking its main characters through a series of challenges in order to raise the money. The plot is kept basic and direct, and the numerous side characters exist to provide insight to the world around the deli, not to create significant subplots.
Everything in the movie, in one way or another, revolves around Johnny paying off his debts. Helping him is Andy, the young cashier, who gets the unenviable job of confronting suppliers when Johnny can't afford to pay them. Andy (Matt Kesslar, Scream 3) may perhaps be a more sensible businessman than Johnny, with his only weakness being a nice set of legs. Pinky (Brian Vincent), on the other hand, hasn't got enough brainpower to deliver a sandwich on time. While Johnny and Andy stress out over their financial crisis, Pinky watches from behind a broom, sad that he can't have a more involved role. The Deli builds a real-world story with a broad range of everyday characters, making the movie accessible.
On the other hand, the smorgasbord of minor characters introduces certain problems. Once the movie succeeds in creating interesting characters out of Johnny, Andy, and Pinky, it's easy to get so focused on them that you stop caring about anyone else. Though I have no complaints about the acting, I found some satellite characters to be interesting and fun while others made me lose interest in the move far sooner than I should have. With the diverse blend of characters in the movie, many people might feel the same way: that some are interesting and others aren't. The problem is, few people will ever agree on which are which.
That, more than anything else, is what can make The Deli a frustrating movie. I want to see Johnny sweat when he's listening to the game on the radio. It's funny watching Pinky get all confused talking to a junkie. Running the store while avoiding creditors is interesting. Having Pinky look for pirate treasure isn't. I enjoy being able to get a glimpse of the entire neighborhood, rather than just the main characters, but this movie has a way of dwelling on characters who aren't worthy of their own screen time.
The Deli is well-crafted, not only by the standards of independent film, but in some ways, even by those of big-budget Hollywood movies. Camera work and framing is nicely done, which is commendable given the resources available to these independent filmmakers. In particular, there is an outside scene in which two characters argue, and it's shot in a perpetual 360-degree pan. Years, I might add, before The Matrix, and without the aid of computer graphics. It also seems that The Deli was largely funded by product placement, and yet the products are placed in a manner that is extremely professional. The ad or logo reaches the viewer and is visible, but the movie doesn't cheaply try to draw attention to it. It's done in such a way that it doesn't negatively affect the art.
Typically, I provide independent films an amount of leeway when it comes to video and audio quality, but this movie needs no such special consideration. The video is transferred fairly well onto disc, and while some of it isn't super stellar, I'm amazed that a low-budget film can look this good to begin with. The audio is in mono, so corners did have to be cut somewhere.
The DVD edition provides for only a few extras, but they are exceptional. In addition to the Director's Commentary, deleted scenes are included, but they fall into the category of "better off deleted" (except for those featuring the donut guy, the perfect pain-in-the-ass customer). I would have loved to have seen those put into the movie instead of some scenes that actually made the cut. Again, which roles you care for and which bore you will vary according to personal taste.
Don't dismiss the Liner Notes either. While many DVDs list them as an extra, they're often just fluff information and chapter listings. Not so with The Deli. The Liner Notes actually have detailed reflections by John Gallagher about financing the project and working with Ice-T. Sure, it'd be better if this stuff was actually included on the disc itself, but I commend them for being sure to include it in one form or another.
Like a low-carb hoagie and a diet soda, The Deli is somewhat tasty, but is missing many of the ingredients that would make it truly enjoyable.
The court finds The Deli guilty on one count of Cinematic Vagrancy: allowing a story to wander without bringing the audience's attention with it. As this Judge can find no evidence of harmful intent, the sentence is lifted in favor of community service. John Gallagher is ordered to make me a sandwich. No olives.
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