The ghost of Federico Fellini that hovers over “Waiters” is far from benign. The appeal of this cynical comedy about a put-upon quartet waiting tables at a vulgarian, nouveau riche golden-wedding anniversary is all but smothered by a parade of grotesquerie that neglects to show a human side. Eye-catching production values and a high-profile cast may make for initially upbeat local numbers, but long-haul and offshore prospects appear doubtful.
To a certain extent, Leone Pompucci’s sophomore outing makes good on the promise of his 1993 debut, “Mille Bolle blu,” which scored some international attention with its frothy charms and spruce packaging. But while “Waiters” makes an audacious attempt to push Italian comedy across more challenging boundaries, delivering technical prowess and dynamic perfs, it ultimately smacks of a strong commercial sensibility sinking into the quicksand of artful pretension.
Scene is a faded seaside restaurant called Eden, undergoing a change of ownership. While the staff fret about their precarious job security, the new proprietor, Azzaro (Antonello Fassari), arrives to celebrate his parents’ 50 -year union with a band of brash friends and relatives and some low-rent musicians in tow.
The anniversary party is quickly exposed as a sordid bunch, headed by obnoxious Azzaro and his philandering father (Carlo Croccolo), whose long-suffering wife (Regina Bianchi) assumes a progressively less festive mood as the day wears on.
The waiters — a former pro-footballer (Diego Abatantuono), an embittered failed musician (Marco Messeri), a compulsive gambler (Paolo Villaggio) and a wide-eyed innocent (Enrico Salimbeni) — all have their own crosses to bear, and everyone’s sense of failure and lack of compassion work against the pic rather than adding the darker, more intelligent nuances that Pompucci appears to be angling for. Armed with cellular phones, flashy cars and other status symbols, the guests offer a cutting but obvious comment on Italy’s ugly, empowered middle class, just as the waiters epitomize the exploited lower ranks. But the comic tone jars uncomfortably.
Also overplayed is the Felliniesque hand, from the doleful off-season seafront setting to the carnival-like whirl of monstrous faces to the headwaiter’s harking back to Rome in its dolce vita period. The unbilled appearance of Sandra Milo (Marcello Mastroianni’s nitwit mistress in “8 1/2”) as the senior Azzaro’s aging floozy pushes the point even further.
Abatantuono’s exuberant screen personality borders on stridency at times, and Fassari is one-note loathsome, but the cast is otherwise strong. Veteran comic Villaggio’s sorrowful turn gives the film some backbone, and Salimbeni also registers effectively.
Musical comments by Paolo Rossi and Carlo Di Blasi strike the right note of irony and are deftly interspersed with kitsch pop tunes hammered out by the hired entertainers. Massimo Pau’s stylish lensing is both a boost and a burden. The pairing of his skewed angles and precision compositions with Maurizio Marchitelli’s vivid art direction often exacerbates the whole enterprise’s sense of contrivance.