Dir:- Adrienne Shelly
Starr:- Keri Russell, Cheryl Hines, Adrienne Shelly, Nathan Fillion, Jeremy Sisto
Every now and again as a cinemagoer you come across a film that somehow bypassed you on the bigscreen (probably because it was shown for less than a week at some obscure metropolitan arthouse venue), but when discovered on DVD you prize all the more, perhaps all too aware that this movie may have never come to your attention. In my recent past, movies like The Daytrippers, Big Night, Stranger than Fiction and The Door in the Floor have all fallen into this curious category, and although unlikely to spawn the almost manufactured ‘cult’ status of films like Pi, or Rushmore, they are, nonetheless, of a rare quality that I’m sure will hold some kind of fascination, for a select, hardcore audience of fans, for years to come. Waitress, a surprisingly pleasant distraction of a movie, will need to find a niche for itself in amongst those other releases, as the late Adrienne Shelly’s labour of love is a sparklingly witty and satisfyingly quirky feature, that although at times as saccharine-sweet as the many luminously coloured pies it has upon display, manages to ground this treacly tendency in a well-crafted, utterly fantastic and yet quietly authentic, sense of Southern-reality.
Superficially reminiscent of Lasse Hallstrom’s Chocolat (a risible confection of French pastries, gypsies and wish fulfilment, passing as wisdom), Waitress, at first glance, seems a day-glo American, down-south homily to small town values and blue-collar working life. Yet Shelly’s writing is far more astute than some Doc Hollywood cast-off and what makes the movie notable is the exquisite comic timing that Shelly seems to invest in each frame. I’ve not seen a director so comfortable with letting the camera roll that one second longer than is dramatically bearable, since the early Woody Allen of Bananas and Play it Again, Sam. It’s almost a forgotten art form in modern day Hollywood, the ability to push a scene out of the dramatic hum-drum and into the supremely comic, without signposting it too heavily. Compare any of the many meetings between the central character Jena (Keri Russell) and her lover/doctor Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion) and, say, a sequence from one of the latest ‘rom-com’ vehicles (anything featuring Kate Hudson for example) to see how easy Shelly has made this trick seem. Apparently Shelly had intended Waitress to be a vehicle for her own acting talents, with the central role of Jena being earmarked for herself. What a different movie that might have made, as Keri Russell’s ability to find just the right facial expression (be it an arched eyebrow, a devilish grin, or a traumatised stare) is one of the major reasons why the film manages to veer away from outright whimsy.
The story of Waitress is a simple one, which belies the myriad charms of its characterisation and dialogue. Jena is the titular waitress, stuck in a dead-end marriage, with a psychologically controlling and intimidating husband, called Earl (all too chillingly portrayed by yet another crack-job turn from Jeremy Sisto). Her one true gift is for baking pies, something that she combines with her waitressing duties at Old Joe’s Pie Shop. Her world is limited to her workplace and her home, a reflection of just how short a leash Earl has her on. Thankfully Jena has her fellow waitresses Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly) to offer friendship, support, a sarcastic remark and a blunt assessment of reality. After a drunken night with Earl (the sex scenes in Waitress are comically embarrassing) Jena finds out that she has foolishly allowed herself to be knocked up. On visiting her family doctor, she is introduced to the new medic in town, the fetching, if rather hamfisted, Doctor Pomatter and thus begins a brief attraction that helps to awaken something that had long lain dormant in Jena, namely her independent self.
What is particularly refreshing about Waitress’s take on this all-too-familiar narrative arc, is that Jena’s response to her pregnancy is not the usual, gradual realisation of maternal instincts, but rather a complete and utter rejection of the very idea of motherhood – at one point she even calls the infant growing inside her ‘a parasite’. This provides much of the comic material in the movie, but also helps to add layers of texture to a potentially mawkish central character.
Treading a very fine line between the utterly preposterous and overbearingly whimsical on the one hand (something that only the coda ending really falls into) and the rather dark and harrowing on the other, Waitress, despite its contrived elements, works very hard at investing each of its characters with an authenticity that gently persuades the viewer to engage with this ‘fiction’. As a result, particularly in the stylised sequences between Jena and Earl, the movie manages to astutely probe the ways in which a loving relationship could go wrong and end up incarcerating a woman like Jena in a miniature private hell. This isn’t Mike Leigh, but after a while the sound of Earl’s approaching car horn has all the power of one of Leigh’s typical domestic explosions. The accumulation of small details on each of the principle characters (Old Joe’s absurd persnicketiness, Ogie’s spontaneous poetry, Doc Pomatter’s lackadaisical approach to office organisation, Becky’s obsession with her breast alignment), adds up to an understated humanity, that has its clearest expression in Cal’s wonderful assessment of his own existence: “Happy enough. I don’t expect much. I don’t get much, I don’t give much. I generally enjoy whatever comes along. That’s my answer for you, summed up for your feminine consideration. I’m happy enough.”.
Waitress doesn’t try to reinvent the comedy movie, but it does do a bloody good job of breathing life into what had become a tired old sub-genre, the rom-com. Whereas Chocolat tried to hide its flaky and banal wisdoms behind the viewer’s lusting for artfully crafted chocolate delicacies, here the perfect pies – and my do they indeed look perfect – that Jena bakes are sublime outpourings of her inner turmoil and the daily drudgery of her marriage. It’s tragic to consider that Shelly’s obvious comic talent has been cutdown before it could perhaps have achieved its fullest expression. However Waitress stands as a strong testament to her gifts as a writer, director and performer, and a film well worth ferreting out, particularly if you are a fellow seeker of rare and precious cinematic treats.