Although it may sound like it, Joseph Levy’s documentary Spinning Plates has nothing to do with the noble — and undervalued — art of plate spinning. (For the record, no plates are spun, and I confess this fact disappointed me slightly.) No, it’s just an oddly titled documentary about three restaurants. And it’s a rather good one, but will many people take time from their crowded awards-season viewing to go see it? That’s a question that can’t be answered until it opens locally on Friday, Dec. 6. Since this is a fairly slack week (the only competition I’m aware of is Out of the Furnace — a film the studio refused to allow local critics to screen), it might stand some slim chance.
Levy’s film takes three restaurants of very different caliber — one outrageously upscale, one of the successful populist variety, one barely scraping by — and cross-cuts their stories. The connections among the restaurants are fairly vague. All three prepare and serve food. Otherwise, the only connective thread is that each faces a crisis as part of the arc of their stories. For that matter, the film clearly devotes most of its energy focusing on Grant Achatz from Chicago’s Alinea. That’s understandable, since he’s famous, and really the only known figure in the film. He also makes for the best copy because he’s the most loquacious of the participants. That, however, is something of a mixed blessing because he has a tendency to come across as a little arrogant and something of a pompous ass. Your fondness — or lack thereof — for prattle about intellectualizing the nouvelle cuisine dining experience will come into play here. The fact that he clearly understands that he’s slightly ridiculous helps. The fact that he talks about “crushing” a competitor does not.
The other two get shorter shrift. Breitchach’s Country Dining in Balltown, Iowa, has a tale that almost feels like a Frank Capra movie, complete with 150-year traditions, a tightly knit family and the amazing goodwill of its clientele. At the bottom of the heap — both in terms of attention and success — is the struggling La Cocina de Gabby, a low-rent Mexican restaurant with no safety net at all. (If the film didn’t intend to paint a very class-conscious picture of America in all this, it did anyway.) As noted, each restaurant suffers a major calamity. The most terrifying is Achatz’s battle with stage 4 cancer. The most astonishing is the Breitbachs’ restaurant burning to the ground — twice. This is also where the Capraesque quality really kicks in — except that this isn’t a screenwriter’s fantasy. The most quietly devastating is the Martinez family losing its home. Theirs may, in fact, be the most dispiriting story overall, and the fact that the film more or less brushes their fate off in the wrap-up titles at the end feels somewhat callous. That said, the film is constantly intriguing — on three very different levels. Not Rated, but contains nothing offensive.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas.