Anyone who carries the psychological scars of restaurant work knows there's a great, brutal comedy to be made about the food service industry. After seeing ''Waiting. . ." you'll still be waiting.
To his credit, first-time writer-director Rob McKittrick knows his surf 'n' turf: psychotic short-order chefs, dorky managers, busboys incapacitated from sucking nitrous oxide out of whipped cream cans, the unspeakable things done to food in the name of revenge on obnoxious customers. ''Waiting. . ." has the potential to be the ''Office Space" of restaurant comedies. Instead, it's a third-rate ''Clerks," a friendly but poorly made time-waster that confuses frat-house crudity and shock gags with actual humor. Teenage boys will be in heaven. All others: Check, please.
What ''Waiting. . ." gets right is the generic tackiness of formula restaurants like ''Shenanigans" -- i.e., Bennigan's, Applebee's, T.G.I. Friday's -- and the soul-sucking limbo they offer to college kids unsure of what they want out of life beyond next month's rent. The movie splits its time between Dean (Justin Long), a sweet-faced community college grad watching the future pass him by, and his roommate Monty (Ryan Reynolds), a wisecracking party animal and master of food-service subversion. Showing new recruit Mitch (John Francis Daley) around his appointed stations, Monty introduces him to the large, milling cast.
They include: head cook and general reprobate Raddimus (Luis Guzman); Bishop (Chi McBride), the Yoda of the dishwasher; hypertense waitressing lifer Naomi (Alanna Ubach); jailbait hostess Natascha (Vanessa Lengies); neurotic waiter Calvin (Patrick Benedict); too many others. Guzman and McBride are the pros here, and they're fun to watch, but it's a mark of the movie's ineptitude that it puts the whip-smart B-movie queen Anna Faris (''Scary Movie") in a server's smock without giving her anything to do.
Mostly, everyone stands around talking about their naughty bits. As Monty explains to the dumbfounded Mitch, the male staffers have an ongoing contest in which they flash each other in baroque ways; if the other guy looks, he's ''gay" and gets a kick in the pants. Yes, this reflects some seriously repressed sexual confusion on the part of the characters, filmmakers, and target audience. No, the script acknowledging as much with a few lame jokes doesn't help.
Will Dean take idiot boss Dan (David Koechner) up on his offer to join management? Will Calvin get over his urinary shyness? Will Monty learn that sleeping with underage girls is morally if not legally problematic? If only ''Waiting. . ." made any of this interesting. Reynolds is the film's mascot and prime offender, still trotting out his ''Van Wilder" bad-boy routine as if he were rebelling against anything that hadn't been settled long ago. He's an imitation Jason Lee, who's himself an imitation of Chevy Chase with the goofball parts left out.
In the end, the special of the day is chicken, since ''Waiting. . ." doesn't dare shock its complacent college audience with anything more than hubba-hubba booty talk and close-ups of burning spliffs. Even Monty pulls back from the precipice in a scene that's both unbelievable and hypocritical. For a movie this obsessed with genitalia, where are the cojones?
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.