Sep/2020

Film Review: ‘Deli Man’!

by Bryan Kluger on Mar 24th, 2015

Paul N., Here…

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Picture this: you’re home for the holidays and in walks your Nana. She sits down next to you and before you know it, she’s engrossed you into one of her many tales of yesteryear. At first you are completely engaged in the tale, but as time slips by she begins to remind you of Abe Simpson.  The story winds through impossible tangents while refusing to reach a conclusion. This is exactly how it feels watching Deli Man.

This documentary follows (for the most part) “Ziggy” of Kenny & Ziggy’s in Houston. He’s a 3rd generation deli man who decided to give up a promising cooking career in England to follow his grandfather’s footsteps running a delicatessen in Manhattan.   The documentary simultaneously gives a heartfelt sentimental glimpse into Ziggy’s inspirational journey, as well as a historical look into the development and eventual decline of the deli in America. It is both a fascinating and bittersweet glimpse at a once promising enterprise.

For the most part, Deli Man truly is an interesting tale of the rise and fall of the delicatessen in America. The documentary is filmed well, with a great mix of testimonials, interviews, and footage. However, it suffers from trying to do too much at once. At an hour and a half runtime, it shouldn’t feel like a movie twice that length. Part of the problem stems from a lack of focus. There is simply too much to take in that it becomes overwhelming. Viewers are given gripping narratives discussing everything from the history of delis, to Ziggy’s rise to success, and even testimonials from a variety of deli owners and celebrities. Each story and testimonial is interesting enough to draw you in with detail, but it’s all just too much. At the peak of interest in any of the numerous tales, focus abruptly shifts to another in order to cram it all in. Viewers are left with nagging questions left unanswered. Had the narrative instead chosen a few focal points and explored them more fully, the film would have been a rousing success.

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The documentary is filmed with obvious polish and skill. No shot lingers too long, nor moves too quickly. Visuals are topical and eye-catching. Interviews are conducted with attention to background, audio, and composition. Stories and responses are chosen with an apparent ear for compelling narrative. Even the music helps to mold the aesthetics in a rousing way. However, too much seems to be crammed in a small amount of time. This leaves viewers longing for more elaboration, yet feeling unsatisfied as the focus continually shifts. This is a shame considering obvious care was given to make the film’s tone and voice reflect the ups and downs of its narrative. 

Perhaps the most confusing of all is the lack of devotion to the main subject. It is understood that Ziggy’s story is the main story that ties the documentary together, yet it feels like the filmmakers couldn’t decide if they really wanted to center the film around him or not. Sprinkled between the various topics, like some sort of disjointed segue, are various underdeveloped mini-tales of several other deli owners. To their credit, each one seems to have their own interesting tale to share, but each one is given only a fraction of the time needed to truly develop their individual exploits. It would have been better had the filmmakers decided to either grant them each enough time to share their stories, or edited them down to sound bites to compliment the points expressed by Ziggy.

The final result is a film that feels like two wonderful halves of completely different documentaries; each one an unfortunate reminder of what could have been had the focus simply been more complete on one or the other. In the end, neither works well enough together to give a satisfying complete picture. Viewers will feel unsatisfied with the entirety of this meal of a film, yet aware that it could have been just what the taste buds ordered. If only.    

3 Meatball Subs out of 5

– Paul Nimon





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