Bruce Fretts
March 03, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

With his sleep-deprived eyes and oversize nose, Adrien Brody looks nothing like a leading man, yet that’s exactly why he’s such an intriguing movie star. Restaurant serves the ”Summer of Sam” punk a made to order role as Chris Calloway, a lean and hungry playwright who tends bar at an upscale Hoboken, N.J., brasserie that employs success-starved artists. The staff also includes aspiring singer Jeannine (Elise Neal), an African-American waitress whom Chris romances.

Director Eric Bross’ drama confronts questions of race, sex, and class with disarming casualness. Despite dialogue that’s occasionally as generic as the title, Tom Cudworth’s script nails the ale-drenched details of twentysomething existence. Shot in 1997, the film offers dashes of ”Law & Order”’s Jesse L. Martin (as a straight-shooting cook) and the Fugees’ Lauryn Hill, who brings more vigor to her few scenes as Chris’ pregnant ex-girlfriend than Neal does to the entire movie. Had their roles been reversed, ”Restaurant” might have felt like more than just an hors d’oeuvre.

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