The makers of "Waiting ..." got that last one mostly right with Dan (David Koechner), a pudgy, balding tyrant who relishes the "power" centered in his closet-sized office. But like Dan's sagging lower lip, intended to convey pompous satisfaction, much of this movie is an affectation, a prop, forced and unnecessary, given the virgin territory being brought to the screen. Because just as it invents, "Waiting ..." shies away from the salacious, "behind-the-scenes" (their words) details promised by the movie's marketing campaign.
The story takes place during a day in the life of a casual dining restaurant called ShenaniganZ. It revolves around a group of regular wait-staffers led by Dean (Justin Long) and Monty (Ryan Reynolds). These two are intended as Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn types from "Swingers": the guy who evaluates his own banal existence and his jerky friend who encourages that existence. Dean is dealing with two recent blows to his ego, both resulting from an inability to rise above his occupation. Monty, his roommate, seems content to crack wise. Minor characters include a couple of female servers (Anna Faris and Kaitlin Doubleday) who are on-hand to be love interests, a trainee (John Francis Daley) who serves as the audience surrogate and an assortment of cooks who range from crazy to extremely demented. Dean is fairly convincing as an average Joe who recently awoke to his depressing averageness. But he is not developed much beyond that simple yearning, so he becomes an average character as well, not at all interesting in the way of Favreau's thwarted but questing neurotic. Monty, too, is rather flimsily constructed. Vaughn's vain smooth-talker had a demented depth. The underlying pathos of his depraved opportunist was soaked in an inability to fool himself. Monty, as "Waiting ..." posters say, is a jerk, and that, unfortunately, is all.
Reynolds does work hard on his part. The actor, long struggling to escape the realm of B projects like "The Amityville Horror," does his best with average material. His delivery is 90 percent of each joke, and the effect is like those remodeling shows that use fancy editing tricks to make it seem like something more interesting than painting is taking place. Like the good-for-you things on a menu at a place like ShenaniganZ, the good moments here are scattered and few. Truly funny shenanigans tend to involve Luis Guzman's degenerate head cook or Alanna Ubach's patience-challenged waitress. Both are veteran character actors, and one thing "Waiting ..." could have used is more veterans. The movie has the feel of a project close to someone's heart, and it's not surprising to find that first-time writer and director Rob McKittrick was inspired by waiting tables in Orlando, Fla., the unofficial capital of casual dining and the birthplace of many theme restaurants.
The problem is that McKittrick, or someone, didn't trust his material: The steak being badly overcooked to someone's exact specifications; the server cooing over a table one moment and badmouthing it in the back the next; the humiliation of lowering oneself to an inferior. These are the natural ingredients in the sad humor of servitude, and they don't need any dressing. McKittrick piles it on at every opportunity. He insists on inventing crazy antics and coaxing his actors to overblown clowning. His joke-telling style, unfortunately a common one, is to smash it in your face, the cinematic equivalent of me writing in all caps, LOOK HOW FUNNY TESTICLES! Interesting details are elusive. Take away the setting and many of the jokes would stand. That's a bad thing. For a truly damning investigation of the strangely decorated strip-mall food palace, we'll have to wait longer. (R) 93 min. ** S
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