Burly character actor Mike Starr (“Ed Wood,” “Dumb and Dumber”) gets to playhis first lead role in “The Deli,” and he makes an agreeable impression as an easygoing delicatessen owner who’s usually up to his thick neck in gambling debts. Overall, however, this small-budget indie comedy is too slight to make much impact on critics or ticketbuyers. Pic will fare best as fodder for pay cable.
Directed by John Gallagher (“Men Lie”), who co-wrote the script with executive producer John Dorrian, “The Deli” tries to evoke the spirit of Damon Runyon with its loosely constructed tale of tough-talking gamblers and neighborhood eccentrics. Each day at the Amico & Son delicatessen in New Rochelle, N.Y., regulars and irregulars wander through the door, in search of food, coffee and, more often than not, extended conversation. The steady customers know that Johnny (Starr), the deli’s owner, is a compulsive gambler. (“He’d bet on what kind of wood was in George Washington’s teeth!”) Most of the time, Johnny is able to put on a brave face and sweet-talk his way through confrontations with bill collectors.
But then he makes a big mistake — he runs the risk of angering his nagging mother (Judith Malina). Each week for the past several years, Mom has given Johnny $ 10 to play the same number. Unfortunately, Johnny stopped playing the number five years ago so he could use the money for his own wagering. Even more unfortunate, Mom’s number finally comes up. In order to cover her winnings, Johnny must place everything — even the deed to his deli — on a make-or-break bet on three back-to-back basketball games.
There is barely enough plot here for an average sitcom episode, but that doesn’t stop Gallagher from stretching “The Deli” to acceptable feature length. He gets a great deal of help from his supporting players, many of whom drop by periodically to tell shaggy-dog stories or simply to behave weirdly.
Standouts in the cast include David Johansen as a zonked-out cabby with a bad sense of direction; Ice T as a surly meat wholesaler who’s growing impatient with Johnny; and Heather Matarazzo (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”) as a smart-mouthed, flashy-dressing teen who captures the fancy of Pinky (Brian Vincent), Johnny’s slow-witted counterman.
Matt Keeslar is well cast as deli manager Andy, who breaks up with his girlfriend in time to find romance at a party catered by Amico & Son. Burt Young and Jerry Stiller play it straight as underworld types. And Frank Vincent is appropriately menacing as a bookmaker who wants to see Johnny lose everything.
Tech values are fine across the board. Subtly setting the mood in various Italian-American bars and restaurants, Gallagher uses music from such classics of Italian cinema as “L’Eclisse” and “Amarcord.” A nice touch, though even die-hard film buffs might not notice.