Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Film review: The Waitress

 I Wonder if Heaven is filled with Pie…

By Christine Lloyd

 

The Waitress has the mixed blessing of being actress/director and writer Adrienne Shelly’s wide-screen release directorial debut and swan song. Prior to the The Waitress, Shelly directed four small, little known films: Lois Lives a Little, Sudden Manhattan, I’ll Take You There, and The Shadows of Bob & Zelda. The Waitress is Shelly’s first film to make it into the top ten Box Office films, and win critical recognition at Sundance.

 

As anyone living in New York knows by now, the media reported that Shelly was murdered in her bathroom last year by a construction worker who’d been doing some work on the floor below. According to news reports, Shelly had complained about noise below her apartment and threatened to call the authorities. Police reported that an argument ensued, the worker (a Salvadoran immigrant) allegedly killer her and tried to cover up the crime by making it appear to be a suicide. Tragic, considering the actress left behind a small child: Shelly died before her film was accepted into Sundance or was distributed to theaters. Her husband,  Andrew Ostroy, set up the Adrienne Shelly Foundation (http://www.adrienneshellyfoundation.org) to award film scholarships and grants to women filmmakers. 

 

Prior to directing, writing and acting in The Waitress – a story that deals with Shelly’s own experience as a struggling artist about to have an unwanted child – Shelly was best known for her work in several independent films by director Hal Hartley,  notably The Unbelievable Truth.

 

Knowing this doesn’t affect your enjoyment or appreciation of the movie all that much, except perhaps to make it more bittersweet, particularly when you realize which character Shelly is playing – a somewhat pasty-faced, not overly attractive co-worker and friend of the lead.

 

The film stars Keri Russell (from the tv sitcom Felicity) as Jenna; Ms. Shelly, as Jenna’s close friend and co-worker, Dawn; Andy Griffith – of Matlock and the Andy Griffith Show fame – as Joe, owner of the diner where Jenna works; Nathan Fillion, most recently seen in the television series Drive, as well as the feature films Slither and Serenity; Jeremy Sisto, as Jenna’s husband Earl; and Cheryl Hines as Becky, Jenna’s older co-worker.

 

With a running time of approximately an hour and thirty minutes, The Waitress is a feel-good character piece centered around the lead, who makes pies at Joe’s Pie Diner, a small, somewhat beaten down joint in central New Jersey. Jenna lives and breathes pies and has created over 147 different types throughout her career, a new one every day. She dreams up her pies while arguing with her abusive and controlling husband, or while sitting at the bus station.

 

The film is shot from Jenna’s perspective: we only see the other characters when she’s present, and only see what they tell Jenna or Jenna thinks about them. Shelly, unlike other directors, never cheats or pulls back from her lead’s point of view and utilizes dream sequences where Jenna is dreaming up a new brand of pie as a means of exploring her inner turmoil in a comedic way. For example, when Jenna discovers in the first five minutes of the film that she is pregnant by her no-account husband, she dreams up Bad Baby Pie, describes the filling and how it will be cooked. The next day, we see Joe, played by Andy Griffith, asking Jenna – after he learns of her pregnancy – to bring him a piece. When she visits her obstetrician,  she brings Marshmallow Mermaid Pie, which she holds like a shield against her stomach as she envisions all the pregnant women around her naked, cringing at the thought.

 

The story’s central arc addresses Jenna’s struggles to come to terms with her pregnancy and having a baby, how it will change her life, how it will effect her relationships and her dreams. At first, she hates the child within her belly. She sees it as an inconvenience and a parasite that will take away everything she has worked so hard to accomplish,  notably her chance to leave her husband and start a new life. As her co-workers make clear at the beginning, while Jenna is prettier than they are, has an attractive husband and a talent for piemaking, they wouldn’t want to be in her shoes. We find out why when we meet him. In the first ten minutes of the film, we see Jenna retreating into herself out of fear and loathing. We never see Earl outside of Jenna’s perspective, so he remains the film’s only two – dimensional character.

 

Yet, as testament to the director’s talent, there’s never a black-and-white villain. We come to know why Jenna got involved with him: there are glimpses of vulnerablity and insecurity beneath the sneers and abuse. Earl objectivizes Jenna, treating her as a possession without regard for her emotional wellbeing. Without falling into cliché, Shelly depicts a marriage gone bad.

 

The other male lead, a doctor portrayed by Nathan Fillion, is perhaps more complex and three-dimensional. He’s nebulous, yet empathetic, comical with a charm and restraint evocative of Cary Grant or a young Tom Hanks. At once bemused and taken aback by Jenna’s attraction to him, he seems more perplexed than manipulative, the happily married man who can’t help but find himself falling in love with the waitress who reminds him a bit too much of his childhood crush. Their relationship is both funny and bittersweet, but also manages to avoid cliche.

 

Outside of Earl and the Doctor, whose name escapes me – she rarely calls him by his first name – the other two characters portrayed in the film are Dawn and Becky, an older waitress, who has a little secret that Jenna discovers mid-way through. All three are fully developed characters, yet we never see them outside of Jenna. Unlike most romantic comedies, The Waitress does not employ stock characters in supporting roles: no “quirky best friend and confidant,” “wiser older friend,” or “wise old man.” At first glance, each of these characters may appear to fit those models, but their lives are their own, and it’s clear that they don’t simply revolve around Jenna. For example, there is a short and sweet little romantic subplot involving Dawn and a blind date, who stalks her with spontaneous poetry until she eventually accedes, much to her friends’ alarm. Shelly’s characters, unlike the typical blockbuster movie personage, have great verisimilitude: they actually resemble the kind of people you could meet and befriend in a small New Jersey diner, if only for a little while.

 

The film’s only weakness may well be its surreal ending, which in jarring contrast to the rest of the picture is filmed in bright cheery colors and flashes. Is it a dream or is it real? We’re not sure. Upon first viewing, I assumed it was meant to be real, but after discussing it with a friend, I am no longer certain. Without giving too much away, it is shown as a montage and does not quite fit with the overall tone, style, and color scheme of the rest of the picture. It is a slight difference, but enough of one to make you ponder its intent. If it is meant as a dream, then the film is an artistic achievement for reasons you will understand when you see it. If not, the fact that there is a question mark about it gives it a resonance it may have lacked otherwise.

 

The Waitress, albeit a small film in an action-packed summer of bigger, shinier fare, is that rare piece that resonates with you long after it is over, much like Little Miss Sunshine last year. It is a testament to Shelly’s craft and in a way a fitting memorial to her life, however tragic and shortlived.

   

June 13, 2007 - Posted by | Film, Reviews

2 Comments »

  1. The reviewer says of the possibility that the ending is a dream “It is a slight difference, but enough of one to make you ponder its intent. If it is meant as a dream, then the film is an artistic achievement for reasons you will understand when you see it. If not, the fact that there is a question mark about it gives it a resonance it may have lacked otherwise.”

    This is the only review I’ve read that even notes that the ending has some of the marks of a dream sequence. When I saw the film the ending struck me viscerally as a dream. (I should add that I knew nothing of the Adrienne Shelley or her fate, so I wasn’t affected by that!) Just as the reviewer here can’t fully accept the friend’s interpretation, I haven’t been able to persuade others of my experience of the film.

    Whatever about whether it actually is a dream sequence or not–why do reviewers (presumably astute in the language of film) not at least remark on the presence of marks that might indicate it’s a dream? By and large, the reviewers see the ending as weaker than the rest of the film. As this review alludes to, the film is actually rather startling if the ending is a dream. (The point of comparison that occurs to me is “Stranger than Fiction.”)

    Comment by john | July 6, 2007 | Reply

  2. Saw the film last night and immediately felt that everything after the birth of Lulu was a dream sequence. Clues: Jenna says she wants drugs for the birth to the maximum legal level; everything up to the birth is a mess, everything after the birth is neat and perfect; the whole look and feel of the diner shots; and the walk off into the sunset (Wizard of Oz, anyone).

    Comment by Chris | August 16, 2007 | Reply


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