Imagine Quentin Tarantino had written Glengarry Glen Ross, and you’ll have some idea of what Grilled is about. You’ll also probably understand why it quietly went straight to DVD, considering it came on the heels of stars Ray Romano and Kevin James giving up highly successful, crowd-pleasing sitcoms in which they played generally likable people. Few would look at either comedian and say, “I want to see them in a cynical dramedy where they play sociopaths.” Yet, the movie itself is actually pretty good.
Romano and James play, respectively, Maurice and Dave, frozen meat salesmen desperate for a sale. They used to be their company’s top team, but they’ve hit a slump. The slump itself has caused tension in the partnership—the film opens with them angrily trying to go it alone before realizing that’s even worse than working together—but Maurice and Dave subtly imply that their personal problems have impacted their ability to sell. Dave’s wife left him and took his daughter with her; Maurice is a chronic womanizer who fails to close sales because he’s too busy trying to get phone numbers.
Their boss gives them a handful of “sure-thing” leads and vows that if they can’t close one of them, they’re fired. The film takes its time showing Maurice and Dave apply callous, vaguely abusive salesmen tactics to close kindhearted marks. They get a lot of piqued interest but make no sales—until they arrive at the last lead. Loridonna (Sofia Vergara), a Latin sexpot who takes an immediate shine to Maurice, expresses alarming interest in their frozen meat. However, frequent calls from suicidal Suzanne (Juliette Lewis) interrupt the rhythm of the sale. Loridonna forces Dave to impersonate a doctor to calm Suzanne down. When that fails, she insists on going over to see Suzanne personally. Maurice and Dave, desperate to get Loridonna to sign the check, offer to drive her (Dave claims Maurice used to race professionally).
Suzanne, a drunk and a drug addict, lives in a mansion in the Hollywood hills. When Tony (Kim Coates), the mansion’s owner, arrives to patch up a gaping bullet wound, Dave realizes they have a new mark. Tony loves grilling, and he can actually afford what they’re selling (a full side of beef each month, plus a freezer to house it in). However, hitmen (Michael Rapaport and Erik Allen Kramer) show up and make short work of Tony. Suddenly embroiled in the criminal world, Maurice and Dave split their time evenly between running for their lives and trying to sell wealthy gangsters meat products.
Although I understand why this might alienate a huge segment of moviegoers, I appreciated Romano and James for making no effort to gain sympathy from the audience. They find numerous comedic moments in Maurice and Dave’s inherent unpleasantness. The film also goes dark enough to elicit sympathy almost accidentally—Maurice and Dave are in no way good people, but they also don’t deserve to be gunned down in cold blood. Both Romano and James do well in roles that are pretty ballsy attempts to alter the public perception of them. It’s interesting, to me at least, that Romano went on to cocreate and star in the similarly dark, uncompromising dramedy Men of a Certain Age (minus the criminal element), while James has retreated back to ineffectual crowd-pleasers.
William Tepper’s script piles one bad thing on top of another, almost like a British farce, before wrapping it up in a surprisingly neat package. The script and performances are solid, but the film’s thriller elements suffer under Jason Ensler’s workmanlike direction. A veteran helmer of TV comedies, Ensler knows how to find the humor in a given situation, but he doesn’t build the suspense required to make the third act really work. The film also lacks a cinematic visual flair, resembling a mid-’80s movie-of-the-week more than anything else. Honestly, looking like a movie-of-the-week has become a trademark of lazy film comedies for over a decade, but Grilled wants to be more than a lazy film comedy. It largely succeeds, but that’s not strictly a result of the directing.
Overall, Grilled is a bit of a pleasant surprise. It’s not a transcendent film experience, but it does give Romano and James a Punch Drunk Love moment to prove they can be more than sitcom actors. The fact that they both pull it off is less surprising than the fact that the film went direct-to-DVD. Two pretty big stars in a very funny, pitch-black comedy? Nobody wanted to take a chance on that theatrically? Alas, it has found its way into semi-permanent rotation on Comedy Central. Check it out there, or watch it instantly on Netflix. Even if you think you don’t like Romano or James, this movie might change your mind.