Waffle Street is like your average Lifetime movie of the week, except it’s not a television film and is even less nuanced. After a hedge fund manager gets caught in a perfect storm of ethics violations and the 2008 recession, he goes back to square one and attempts to pull himself up again with some honest, back-busting blue collar work. In this case, it’s a job at Papa’s Chicken and Waffles, a regional chain à la Waffle House, where he starts as a kitchen and bus boy before graduating to waiter with hopes of owning his own franchise.
The narrative and emotional arc of this story is straight as they come and why you’ll love it or leave it. Those looking for an inspirational tale of hard scrabble folk who persevere through the good and the bad will appreciate this dominant strain of the American Dream. It’s all very Horatio Alger, and you could make a drinking game out of the many working class clichés. Aligning with the anti-Wall Street mood of the hoi polloi, the movie takes a dim view of the financial sector while giving a little spit shine to the unglamorous world of service jobs.
Our introduction to Jimmy Adams (James Lafferty) comes as he is trying to reason his way through an unethical but legal deal, for which he is eventually fired. Blackballed by his former employers, he has to try his luck in another field and eventually and somewhat accidentally settles on the restaurant business. He can be forgiven for that initial lapse in judgment, and presumably all his previous ones, though because Jimmy immediately redeems himself through his humility and tenacity. At first, his managers don’t know what to make of this man who is overqualified and out of his depth, someone who studiously highlights a 100+ page employee handbook the night before he starts work and who willingly sticks his arm into a clogged toilet because someone stole the plunger. These qualities make him an admirable and sympathetic character but also a convenient stereotype.
Jimmy hardly deviates from his ambition of owning his own Papa’s Chicken and Waffle, which he’s qualified to do after logging in 1000 hours, and that’s the big problem with this movie if you’re hoping to see a true story about the real toll of the financial crisis. His biggest troubles are first physical, keeping up with the demands of the job, and then strategic, as he formulates a plan to work enough hours and raise enough capital. But anyone who’s ever been through a job loss or career change of this magnitude knows that there’s a bigger existential crisis at hand, one that is never fully explored in this movie. We see Jimmy’s frustrations with work but not with the dramatic change in his financial or social status. What is the emotional weight of all this? Or is he just content with soldiering on?
Despite some misgivings, his wife (Julie Gonzalo) is fully onboard, even though, as she points out, it kind of makes their years of sacrifice for his MBA all for naught. For someone whose husband has gone from a hedge fund manager to a waiter at the local waffle joint, she’s exceedingly accommodating. The same is true for Jimmy’s father and grandfather, who eye him warily from the sidelines at first. In fact, it’s their working class roots that encourage his desire to have a “real” job.
I like the attention and respect given to blue collar work, but I have a real issue with the dishonesty that goes along with it. Waffle House oversimplifies this journey that Jimmy embarks on, scrubbing away difficult questions about opportunities and what work we value and how. In place of that story is a watered down narrative about not being too proud to get dirty and start over, which is admirable but ultimately unchallenging. I do think the movie ends in a better place and avoids the easy, comfortable resolution. Jimmy and his friend, a line cook played by Danny Glover, both get satisfying conclusions but not ones that they, or we, necessarily expect.
Dir: Ian Nelms, Esholm Nelms
Writer: Esholm Nelms, Ian Nelms
Cast: James Lafferty, Danny Glover, Julie Gonzalo, Dale Dickey, Adam Johnson, Yolanda Wood
Time: 86 min
Country: United States