Sunday, January 6, 2008

Bittersweet

I'm so emotionally overwhelmed by Waitress that I don't even know where to begin. With the beautiful film itself? Or with the murder of the brilliant co-star/writer/director, Adrienne Shelly, who didn't live long enough to see her film released? I just want to weep.

Her death has nothing to do with my opinion of the quality of the film itself. I mean, it's not just sentimentality making me think the film is so great. Let me be clear on that. I'll talk more about her death later and how it factors into my emotional reaction.

Right now, I just want to celebrate her work. Waitress is a glorious film. It's about a waitress named Jenna (Keri Russell) who works at a pie diner (everything comes in pie form) with her two friends, Becky and Dawn (Cheryl Hines and Adrienne Shelly herself). Jenna is a pie genius - she constantly creates new recipes with quirky names (the "falling in love" pie, the "I Hate My Husband" pie - she thinks of a pie for every situation she encounters, even if she doesn't necessarily put it on the menu). She also has an abusive monster of a husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto). She wants to leave him, but he's ruthlessly controlling. Jenna finds out she's pregnant. She plans to keep the baby but avoids telling him (she's only pregnant because he got her drunk one night) - this doesn't change her plans of wanting to leave and maybe win a pie contest or open her own pie shop. To complicate matters further, Jenna gets romantically involved with her handsome doctor (Nathan Fillion), also married. Jenna is a terribly unhappy woman. So, there's the plot, or the ingredients, I should say.


The film is brilliantly written and directed by Adrienne Shelly. The dialogue is clever and delightfully odd, but it's believable and insightful. Waitress has a great look to it - the direction is confident, stylish, and quirky. It's never too quirky, though. Sometimes films are too smug for their own good. This isn't one of them. Every frame is 100% sincere. The cinematography is also lovely - as pretty as Keri Russell's tear-stained face or the pies those tears inevitably fall into. This must be the only film ever to have a Pie Gaffer, someone whose sole responsibility it is to light the pies. Well, he did a great job. The pies look like the most delicious desserts ever.


Waitress is oddball fun (I'd put it in a category with Juno), but it's also very serious (again, like Juno). It's never softens the blow of Jenna's unhappiness. That being said, it is one of the most heart-warming, life-affirming films I've ever seen, second this year only to Juno. I don't mean to diminish its importance by comparing it to Juno so much, but it's really the highest compliment. And while they're similar in many ways (some obvious - unplanned pregnancy - and others not as much), they are each unique and wonderful in their own spectacular ways. These are films that really understand women. Diablo Cody brought that sensitivity to Juno, and Adrienne Shelly did it with Waitress. Smart women are pretty much rocking the film world now. Girl power, man. Juno is one of my favorite films already, and Waitress could very well make that list. Like the character of Juno, I empathize a lot with Jenna. I get how she's feeling. I can see myself in her, and it's moving and inspiring.


The acting in Waitress is delicious (I have to use food terms, come on). Cheryl Hines is sassy, Nathan Fillion is wonderful, and Andy Griffith is smart-alecky and sympathetic as the old owner of the diner. Adrienne Shelly is a ball of fire as Dawn. She's adorable and funny and as full of life as you can possibly imagine. Keri Russell is nothing short of miraculous. She makes Jenna so real. This is Oscar caliber here. She's dry and sarcastic when she needs to be, with her sweet Southern drawl, but she paints a devastating portrait of a woman defeated by a crummy life. Through it all, she's tough as nails, even though she seems to be crumbling on the outside. Jenna is special and strong, even if she doesn't know it. This film is very much about believing in yourself and realizing that you deserve happiness, that you have to make the decision to seize happiness sometimes. Keri Russell is just exquisite, one of the most memorable performances I've seen in a long time. Pure perfection.

I knew nothing about Adrienne Shelly before seeing Waitress. I had never even heard of her. Now, I'll never forget her. She wrote Waitress while she was pregnant with her own daughter. Her daughter, so young and without a mother now, even appears in the film. This is such a personal project. It's fitting that it would be her last. She got to make her masterpiece. It's a tragedy that she wasn't alive to see it get selected to Sundance and receive all sorts of critical accolades and get released and receive such a warm reception from the public. She has touched so many people. She was only 40 years old when she was murdered. Watching her on screen, so beautiful and full of energy, it's hard to believe that such a light could ever be extinguished. What a huge loss for her family and friends, and what a loss for cinema.

It certainly adds an extra dimension to watching Waitress. I think it just makes it even more precious and poignant than it already was. There's an ethereal quality to the ending, especially in light of what happened. I don't think Adrienne Shelly would want people to dwell on the negative. The film is about hope and finding a rainbow in the gloomiest of skies. Waitress is the perfect memorial. At Sundance, producer Michael Roiff said of Shelly, still knowingly referring to her in the present tense, "She likes to juxtapose comedy and tragedy, in part because real life doesn’t get compartmentalized.” So true. Waitress reflects that. How unfortunate that her own life reflected it, too.

(Keri Russell and Adrienne Shelly
on the last day of filming)

Waitress is a magnificent, exuberant, heart-filled, and heart-warming tribute to an outstanding woman. I call Waitress the "Beautiful, Touching, Honest, Inspirational Film About Life and Love Made By an Exceptional Woman Who Was Taken From This World Too Soon" pie.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

2 comments:

meg said...

the viewing of Waitress was emotional one for me. I didn't know Adrienne personally but her previous film "Sudden Manhattan" was all time favorite movie of mine and I often watch it. Every time I watch I am impressed with its super quirkiness, brilliant dialogues, great cast and their acting and very fitting music. It seems the film is overlooked but I think it's a great indie movie.

So Adrienne's death was a shocker to me and when I won a free screening pass for Waitress I wasn't sure what to expect. When I first saw her name in the credit I felt like crying. then I was slowly brought into the movie which was lovely and very touching. I love the fact that characters in the movie are so real yet Adrienne managed to make it to a comedy - when you think of it it's no laughing matter (like abusive husband or affairs), yet we could laugh as much as we could cry. I was pleasantly surprised by Keri Russell's performance. She was awesome as Jenna, she certainly added something special.

Close to the end of the movie I couldn't stop crying and the ending - it was just perfect. Like you wrote I guess this was a perfect final film for Adrienne, although I am very sad that this is the last film she made. After watching this movie I felt so sad that I didn't have a chance to get to know this wonderful director.

Anonymous said...

I watched Waitress last night, it happened to come on as I was watching my 1 year old daughter playing in the living room (my husband had been watching the previous movie and left the room when it ended).

I usually don't watch movies but immediately I was entranced and watched the whole movie through. I was so impressed with it that I jumped on IMDB to read more about it and was saddened to hear of the passing of Adrienne Shelly.

Your review and tribute was a pleasure to read.