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Truth in Romance

”I know you got a good heart,“ says a black man to a white, midway through Restaurant, ”but even so, I don‘t trust you.“ Writer Tom Cudworth and director Eric Bross have fashioned a sharp, upbeat, well-wrought meditation on love and race that kicks the new year in movies off to a terrific start. Given that the word restaurant constitutes a singularly dull and unpromising title, the energy and richness of the actual film are all the more sweet a surprise.

The place is Hoboken, one subway stop across the river from downtown Manhattan. The twin towers of the World Trade Center stand mistily in the distance like a pair of beckoning fingers, and, understandably, most of the folks who work in the upscale eatery at the story’s center are eager to cross that river and make a bigger mark in the world. Chris (Adrien Brody) is the playwright who tends bar. Jeannine (Elise Neal) is the singer, daughter of a Motown great, who starts as the new waitress and instantly stirs up a romantic attraction in Chris. Indeed, he‘s stirred a little too instantly -- he’s still walking around wounded from an affair with another black woman, Leslie (Lauryn Hill), that ended weeks ago. Being white, he takes a particularly pointed ribbing from friends of both races, but Cudworth and Bross are careful never to overstate any racial tension: Here at the turn of the 21st century, they suggest, the young of all colors are more comfortable with one another than their parents ever were; yet the battle lines are still there, however buried. Chris bitterly recalls his dead father‘s mantralike use of the word nigger when he was growing up in riot-torn Newark. It’s his own phobia about using the word that prompts one of the black cooks, Quincy (Jesse L. Martin), to confess that he can‘t trust Chris, despite his good heart -- that he’s much more comfortable with a white man who‘ll use the word, like their mutual buddy Reggae (David Moscow).

Cudworth and Bross chart such paradoxes with great humor -- the back-and-forth putdowns are lifelike and infectiously funny -- but they never lose sight of damning details. (Reggae and Quincy are both bigoted against a waiter who’s gay.) They also keep the focus on the love story, the myriad ways the exhaust from Chris‘ bygone affair is polluting the air around his newer, and truer, love. As Jeannine comes to realize how closely she’s following in another woman‘s footsteps, she despairs that Chris will ever love her. For Chris, the psychological hangover may even topple his play, a drama about an interracial romance whose opening night looms throughout the film, and whose success could launch him into a new life. Alas, the actor playing the lead (Simon Baker-Denny) is a former friend who had a one-night stand with Leslie and even puts the moves on Jeannine. That he’s a good actor and seems born to play the lead in a script Chris wrote about himself only fuels the comedic cycle of self-destruction.

This perverse interdependency between a hero and his alter-ego is the emblem of the movie‘s overall wit, its biting honesty about the shadows that lurk even in good hearts. Brody’s gaunt intensity, so memorable in The Thin Red Line and Summer of Sam, beautifully serves these nuanced conflicts as Chris is forced to confront the elusive monster within his psyche: that predator upon fear that causes him -- causes anybody -- to react in any sort of automatic way to a person‘s race. That his prejudice leads him to fall in love doesn’t quite let him off the hook. This is one mark of this film‘s intelligence. That his racism (if he can face it with sufficent courage) may restore him to a deeper sense of his humanity is an indicator of true vision.