Monday, December 5, 2011

Wow! Pain And Pleasure And Pies; Waitress Rocks On DVD!

The Good: Great acting, Wonderful direction, Writing, Humor, Interesting characters, Good DVD features
The Bad: I'm still trying to find one . . . moments of predictability?
The Basics: Brilliant and heartwarming, Waitress is a quiet winner that makes a pregnant woman having an affair with her doctor into a reason to cheer.

It might behoove me to mention up front that I am not a fan of children or babies. In fact, I pretty much loathe them and the fixation so many people in America have with them. I mention that up front because I recently saw and fell in love with the movie Juno and I've just spent the past few hours falling in love with Waitress. Indeed, having never seen a preview for Waitress, only knowing that it was a movie with Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion.

So, going into Waitress, I had no real expectations and no idea where the movie was going. The front of the DVD box implied a romantic (or at least sexual) relationship between Keri Russell's waitress character and whomever Fillion was playing. The thing is, it seems so strange that in such a short time I would fall in love with two independent films featuring young, pregnant women as their protagonists. Because Waitress . . . that's what it's about!

Jenna is a pie maker and waitress at Joe's Pie Diner, a small, Southern diner in the middle of nowhere. She is a pie genius, figuring out ingredients that come together in a brilliant fashion and delight the patrons of the diner where she otherwise waits tables. She is accompanied by her waitress friends Becky and Dawn and almost immediately, she discovers that her quiet, fairly unpleasant life with her unloving husband, is about to become infinitely more complicated. She is pregnant and her husband is even more abusive than before, when he is not being self-centered or indifferent.

Jenna goes to the ob/gyn, who has been replaced by a new man, Dr. Pomatter. Jenna and Pomatter test the waters with one another and are initially wary of each other, though they soon find they are having sex and soon making love. With the doctor, Jenna remembers what it feels like to be valued and she begins to be reinvigorated. However, soon both of their marriages complicate the joy of their sexual relationship and the budding love they feel for one another. As Jenna carries the child to term, she looks to run away and participate in a pie contest to try to actualize herself.

It has not been since the small film The Spitfire Grill (reviewed here!) that I have seen a movie that so immediately captivated me, even though I was not surprised by the plot or character developments. Indeed, in The Spitfire Grill, there are many obvious plot conceits. Similarly, in Waitress, things like the secret that Becky is keeping from Dawn and Jenna seemed obvious to me from one of her earliest scenes. The development of the film is not surprising, but it's still perfect in a quiet, quirky way.

Some people might be bothered by Waitress as it very quickly leaps between what is acceptable for likable characters and what is generally considered morally reprehensible. So, here's the thing; I am a huge prude when it comes to fidelity issues. I believe if you're going to be married, be married. If you're in love with someone who is not your spouse, break it off before violating your vows. I'm a huge "word is bond" type person. I preface my next line with that because there is a huge difference between art and real life.

The moment Jenna pulls Dr. Pomatter to her lips, I cheered. When they explode with passion and just start going at one another, there is a huge catharsis for the viewer and the characters. This is not something cheap or easy and the level of connection - despite the voice-over - is more than just sexual. It's not just about the sex. Pomatter makes Jenna uncomfortable because he simply and genuinely cares about Jenna, not just as a patient, but as a woman.

Moreover, seeing all of the abuses Jenna suffers and that are implied that precede the movie, the viewer wants to see her happy or at the very least, safe. Moreover, for all of the moments I predicted, it is in the character of Dr. Pomatter that there remained a surprise. The moment Jenna noticed his wedding ring, I waited to hear that he was a widower. It doesn't materialize.

So, to recap in the middle: I'm not a fan of babies, casual sex, or infidelity. Waitress has all of those things and it is an amazing character study. The reason it works is because it combines the absurd with the horrifically real. When Jenna and Pomatter set a date, director Adrienne Shelly treats the viewer to a montage of Jenna's smile. It is unbroken through her routines and it is silly and kind of creepy for its consistency, but it works because it is genuine and funny.

The other half of Waitress is dark and painful to watch. Jenna's husband Earl beats her, more or less rapes her and he is domineering and controlling. He plays the martyr card constantly, insisting that Jenna fork over her money so he can provide for her. It is ridiculous and painful and the way the scenes with Earl are shot universally contain a dark menace and an underlying threat. Viewers connect with the scenes because we know that there are men like this in the world and women, like Jenna, who are unable to leave them. Jeremy Sisto, who plays Earl, portrays the abusive and destructive Earl much the way he played Billy on Six Feet Under (reviewed here!) without the pathos of Billy's mental illness. As a result, Earl becomes utterly unsympathetic and the viewer silently begs writer and director Shelly to let him be killed off. Shelly manages to both surprise and please us with her resolution to the film.

In fact, the only serious, glaring fault in Waitress on the character front comes from how great the acting is. There is a throwaway line about how Earl changed after he and Jenna married, but the devastating quality of the relationship of Jenna and Earl does not even hint at any chemistry between them. How and why these two characters ever came together is a mystery and one that is devoid of answers in the movie.

In part, this is a problem of the actors. Keri Russell and Jeremy Sisto play their roles without any on-screen chemistry. Russell looks uncomfortable in every scene with Sisto and that works to create the distance between the characters, even if it makes their origins lose any sense of sensibility.

Nathan Fillion, perhaps best known for his work as the lead on Firefly (reviewed here!), plays Dr. Pomatter unlike any other character we have seen him as. Here he has great charisma without an underlying dark side. Pomatter, despite the terribly unethical thing his character is doing in engaging in a sexual relationship with his patient, is instantly likable and quietly able. Fillion delivers his lines with convincing personality that is quite distinct and a clear foil to Sisto's Earl.

But it is Keri Russell who carries Waitress. Russell once again reinvents herself as a cerebral actress quite able to get around wordy and esoteric dialogue. Russell in Waitress also manages to develop a powerful sense of comic timing that has not been present in many of her other works. She is funny in many of her deliveries - "un-thank you" comes right to mind - and she is able to make the viewer care without words. Her ability to emote with her eyes is painful when Jenna is being taken by Earl. Russell communicates without speaking, giving a wrenching performance that should have gotten her a lot more awards for this role than it did.

On DVD, Waitress is a celebration of itself and the life of writer-director Adrienne Shelly. Shelly was murdered before the film ever premiered and her death is alluded to in several of the featurettes. As well, there is a tribute to her by the cast and crew (one of whom is her husband). The commentary track with Keri Russell and Shelly's husband is bittersweet and informative. Other featurettes discuss the various pies and there are wonderful character explorations by the stars. There are, interestingly, no deleted scenes, but the film and DVD experience feel quite complete without them.

Waitress is a vastly underrated film; it is a dramedy that takes so many boring or socially reprehensible things and makes them entertaining and wonderful to watch. It's a must for the collection of any true independent film buff or anyone who loves a smart, heartwarming movie that breaks the mold.

For other dramas that focus on difficult human relationships, please visit my reviews of:
Chasing Amy


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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