16 May 2007

A FLUFFY, FUNNY REMINDER OF DEATH

I promised myself, before ever sitting down to watch Waitress, that I would not talk about The Murder. As I left the theater, I thought about how great it was that I had plenty to discuss using only the film itself, and not The Murder. So here I am, in front of the computer, and I'm opening my review by bringing up The Murder.

On 1 November, 2006, Adrienne Shelly, an actress-director first brought to prominence in the films of Hal Hartley was found dead in her apartment, hanging from the shower curtain rod. Irregularities in the crime scene, specifically an unidentifiable set of boot prints, led the police to rule the apparent suicide an unsolved homicide. A few days later, 19-year-old Diego Pillco, an illegal Ecuadorian immigrant, confessed that he had beaten her to death and staged her suicide, all because she complained about the construction noise that he was making in the apartment downstairs, and he was having "a bad day." (Not that I like linking there, but the only easily available version of this largely-ignored story is at the NY Post).

No murder is "logical," but you'd have to look long and hard for anything quite this random and meaningless. It's the most horrible kind of death I can imagine. Anyway, Shelly had recently finished shooting her film at that time, and her friends and colleagues finished it for her and premiered it at Sundance, and now it is in theaters.

I don't like to tell that story because I think it's very tempting to overvalue the film just because the woman who created it is gone now, and Waitress is a better film than that. It's sweet and charming and nice, nothing ground-breaking or revolutionary in any way; it's a sweet movie made by a woman who loved her characters and was very, very generous to them. And that's exactly why I can't ignore her death. I know nothing about Adrienne Shelly: I've seen none of her other films as a director, and my only prior exposure to her acting was a small role in the Bukowski fantasia Factotum. But I think I would have loved her a little bit, based on this one example, for although she did not attempt to stretch the boundaries of the cinematic arts, she clearly had a good spirit about her story.

So: Waitress. This is the tale of Jenna (Keri Russell), who works at a tiny Southern diner where she makes the finest pies in mankind's history, given strange and evocative names like "Mermaid Marshmallow" and "Lonely Chicago." She also is married to a complete wretch of a man-child named Earl (Jeremy Sisto), who treats her like a dog and, some weeks before the film begins, gets her drunk in order to sleep with her. This results in a most unexpected pregnancy.

Once you have all the pieces, this goes most of the places you would expect it to: the new hunk of an OB-GYN (Nathan Fillion) starts a mad flirtation with Jenna, her co-workers Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly herself) act as mirrors to Jenna's own life/a country-style Greek chorus, and Andy Griffith fills the last slot as a crusty old man with an unsurprising soft core and an unsurprising plan to help Jenna in her miserable life.

I don't usually care for "nice" films, unless they are made with deep conviction, and Waitress is. It is funny and well-observed, not in such a way that you would laugh aloud, but for the great majority of the film I had a satisfied smile plastered on my face. The actors are all ideal, whether it be Russell and her perky pragmatism, or Fillion's awkwardness (that could not be farther from his iconic role as Mal Reynolds of Firefly), and they deliver Shelly's tart dialogue with elan. Frankly, I didn't believe a moment of it, but I haven't privileged realism in filmmaking for a very long time now, and the story and characters instead have the truth of a fable or fairy tale. To these eyes, that is infinitely more appealing.

The film is a sort of neo-feminist text, largely concerned with the arduous process by which Jenna comes to take ownership of her life. I am completely in support of such a plot, although it raises an inevitable question, which is why there is not a moment when the A-word is brought up. Absent a bumbling moment when the doctor confesses that they can't do "that" at his office, there is never any indication that a woman with Jenna's obvious hatred of her life and pregnancy might at least consider terminating it. The pregnancy, not her life.

That would, maybe, strike a sour note that Shelly doesn't want. The film is sweet, even syrupy, and here I'm going to be one of a thousand critics comparing the movie to a pie; but it really does beg for that comparison. Pies are the central element of the story, the tools by which Jenna expresses her inner voice - "I Hate My Husband" pie, "I Don't Want to Have Earl's Baby" pie - and the movie is created with the same attention and the same earnest but non-aggressive desire to please as a really fine pie. I speak this from long experience: pie-making is damn hard, but it is the most satisfying thing in the world, because more than any other form of baking, you're doing it because you want to share your love with the people who get to eat it. That's what Waitress feels like.

Fittingly, the look of the film (shot by Matthew Irving) privileges the pies; everything is shot in a warm albeit sitcommy golden hue, but the pies themselves take on the alarming hues of 1950's Day-Glo kitsch. I'll not give away the ending save to say that eventually this palette moves from just the pies to the mise en scène as a whole, and it is a deeply satisfying moment when it does. This is one of the great food movies of my experience, in which every loving frame of pastry made me incredibly, almost lustfully hungry.

So, long story short: this is a film that will not surprise you for a single moment, but it is gentle and loving, even when it speaks with a cynical voice. It is the work of a brilliant humanist, and in a better world, I would be thrilled to look forward to her future works; instead I have only two films to see, two films that I should have seen years ago. You were a beautiful human being, Adrienne, and I am so terribly sorry that I'm only finding this out now, too late. Goodbye, and thank you.

8/10

1 comment:

Pat "Souljacker" King said...

Tim, I had some interesting thoughts related to this film, priesthood, and the lax judicial system of our day, but I never got around to posting it. Maybe if I get a chance later today I can put it up, along with copious links to educational websites who will increase your understanding of my meaning.