July 7, 2008

300 Words About: Waitress

A special pie for every occasion, mood, and man ...

I had the incredibly rare experience of actually renting a DVD when I was out of town last week. There weren't many new releases in the last year that I hadn't seen, but I remember everybody speaking highly of one that I did miss, the late Adrienne Shelly's Waitress.

It must be known by now that Shelly, who wrote and directed the film and also played Dawn (above right), was tragically murdered just two months before the film premiered at Sundance last year. It was a little difficult for me to watch this thinking about that, but I do now understand the positive reception Waitress received last summer.

As far as romantic comedies (and unfortunately, life) go, Waitress presents a fairly conventional set-up: reluctantly pregnant woman in an unhappy and emotionally abusive marriage seeks independence and true romance. In this case it's Jenna (Keri Russell, August Rush), who works at a "pie diner", where she commiserates with her co-workers and creates out-of-this-world pies based on her constantly changing emotional state. Her husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto, Grand Canyon), is an out-of-this-world pig of a man, only made more of a caricature by his competition, the charming (and married) Dr. Pommatter (Nathan Fillion, Serenity), who is guiding Jenna through her accidental pregnancy by Earl.

Maybe the most impressive aspect of movies like Waitress is that they successfully and seamlessly transition between comedy and drama. Although I wasn't really emotionally checked in for this one, I'm sure the film produces as many laughs as it does sobs. Being a woman in a similar situation as Jenna would only amplify one's experience with it.

I'm obviously not, but I can't deny the pure charm that the movie seems to carry from beginning to end. The scenes with Andy Griffith were my favorite, but I also enjoyed
the relationship between Dawn and Ogie and the awkward, unexpectedly tender moments between Jenna and her boss, Cal. On top of this, I somehow find myself gradually accepting the rampant infidelity practiced by Jenna and Dr. Pommatter. This either speaks to Adrienne Shelly's storytelling ability or to the fraying of my personal morals. I think it's the former.

Waitress is a surprisingly delightful little film and it's obvious Adrienne Shelly devoted her entire being to making it. It's a real shame that she wasn't alive to see so many people enjoy it.

35 comments:

  1. Yup...we're on the same page again. The scenes with Griffith were my faves as well. I thought Russell did an admirable job, but in the end felt this too trite and cutesy for my taste. And it was hard to fell bad for Russell's character considering what she put up with from Sisto's (though he makes a good baddie).

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  2. I've got a serious question. Off the top of your head, can you think of another movie by a female director from last year?

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  3. Falling for Grace.
    The Savages.

    That's all I got off the top of my head (with minimal thinking anyway).

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  4. That's what I thought. I can't think of any besides Waitress. If Adrienne Shelly hadn't been murdered, I daresay nobody would have heard of it.

    This is really, really a sad state of affairs.

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  5. I thought of three more without cheating: 2 Days in Paris, Persepolis (co-directed with a man) and Away From Her.

    I wonder, though. Is it really that bad? I'm sure it's harder for a women to break through, and that shouldn't be taken lightly, but I'm also certain that if you took all the people in the world that wanted to direct features and placed them in a room, a pretty small percentage would be women. I don't have hard stats to back this up at the moment, but I'd be shocked if the number was greater than 20-25%.

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  6. Dang email delays. Here I am late to the party.

    Fletch, it was maybe the cutesiness that prevented me from becoming emotionally invested in this one, and I think I might have asked my girlfriend out loud why Jenna didn't leave him. Then I was zapped by lightning for talking during a movie.

    My bigger question was actually this, though: What kind of a clean break is Jenna going to have from both Earl and Dr. Pommeter if they're all still living in the same place? Seems like the only reason Shelly had her stick around there was for the see-it-coming-from-miles-away Lulu's Pies money shot.

    But I still liked it overall.

    Marilyn, you're actually ahead of a future post that I've had as a mental draft for a while. Thanks for the reminder.

    Without cheating I don't know that I would come up with more than Fletch did. I don't think Nancy Oliver directed Lars and the Real Girl.

    With harder thinking I might have come up with Away From Her and The Savages, but I don't know because I already saw them here. I definitely should have remembered 2 Days in Paris right away.

    Ah, got one. Things We Lost in the Fire. Can't remember her name.

    Umm...OK I'm going to cheat...

    ...

    Julie Taymor! But that's it.

    I do think it is that bad, Fletch. I know you didn't qualify your numbers but they seem way too low to me. Even if they weren't, though, that 25% isn't even being represented in the new releases each week.

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  7. In fact, I checked on two films, Away from Her and Marie Antoinette, and they were both from 2006. So is Falling for Grace (aka, East Broadway).

    As for this statement, "if you took all the people in the world that wanted to direct features and placed them in a room, a pretty small percentage would be women. I don't have hard stats to back this up at the moment, but I'd be shocked if the number was greater than 20-25%," I have no idea how you came up with that idea. Do you think women don't want the creative power, money, and lifestyle of the men who go into directing? Let's just say I think you're wrong.

    Women like Satrapi (Persepolis) show the dark side of Iranian life, but women in the Iranian film industry have the same chances as men do. That's not the case in most developed countries.

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  8. Any movie using Andy Griffith is a must-see. There's a lotta ol' great actors still sitting around waiting for a juicy role...

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  9. Maybe I'm off by a year, but I thought Away From Her got all that attention last year. Oh well, a technicality. It's one of only a handful from either year.

    Your mention of Iran for some reason reminded me that the Walker Art Center here in Minneapolis has had a Women With Vision Film Festival for the last 15 years. This year I think I was only able to see Mutum, but it was excellent. There were a minority of women directors also represented in this year's Global Lens series. Hopefully this discussion will continue in the future post that I have in mind.

    Christian, I don't know the background as to how he decided to make Waitress his first role in 6 years, but he steals every scene he's in.

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  10. On an entirely different note -
    I enjoyed "Waitress," but I thought it owed a lot to "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore." There are obviously plot differences between the two, but the trio of waitresses and the diner's owner are remarkably similar to the corresponding characters in "Alice..."

    And my other memory of seeing "Waitress" is that I left the theather with a mighty hankering for a big slice of pie.

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  11. It's amazing how little data I could find on the net regarding enrollment statistics at film schools. I've looked forever and only found some stats regarding Ireland and Denmark. Little help that they are, they still supported my theory:

    "Significantly more males (66%) than females (34%) are engaged in film directing courses" (http://tinyurl.com/5g5qdy)

    "The National Film School of Denmark
    Denmark’s film school has both a film and TV school. The school is a central gatekeeper in the industry. We examined both who decides who gets in, who gets in, and who teaches at the school.

    Admissions Boards 1992-2002:
    Film: 76% men & 24% women
    TV: 65% men & 35% women.

    Teachers:
    Film: 79% men & 21% women
    TV: 65% men & 35% women

    Film Students:
    Sound recording engineers: 93% men & 7% women
    Cinematographers: 90.5% men & 9.5% women
    Directors: 75% men & 25% women
    Screenwriters: 65% men & 35% women
    Film producers: 54% men & 46% women
    Editors: 46% men & 54% women

    TV Students
    TV directors: 45% men & 55% women
    TV producers: 44% men & 56% women"

    (http://tinyurl.com/5ggofm)

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  12. Fletch - I really don't think those numbers support your theory. It gives the composition of the student body, but not how many women applied. It also doesn't give real numbers of students. So, if there are 30 students in the TV directors class, that means that only 17 women are going to be put into the system and says nothing about their chances in the job market.

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  13. An interesting comparison, Pat. I haven't seen Alice, but like I say, the set-up here is pretty conventional. And yeah, the pie craving lasts. Welcome back from China, by the way!

    As little as it might be, I appreciate that evidence, Fletch (and I can imagine it was difficult to find). I must admit I didn't consider the enrollment stats at film schools. Good for raw analysis, but I'm still curious as to how that translates in real life, especially with the point Marilyn makes.

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  14. I hate to say it, but the respectable film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore gave birth to the TV series Alice and an odious southern waitress with the equally odious tagline, "Kiss my grits!" Oy!

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  15. Marilyn, I think we could go back and forth all day. :) I'd say "but look what I found here that shows how the percent of each gender that applied mirrors the enrollment rates," but then you might come back and say "yes, but how many women's hands were tied behind their backs by men, keeping them from being able to fill out the application?"

    Yes, I'm being facetious, but really, I have no reason to believe that there's an equal number of applicants that somehow turns into a severely swewed enrollment>>job rate.

    You're obviously an exception, but I just don't feel that generally speaking women are as interested in directorial roles (and film in general) as men. For another weak piece of evidence, I point to the "Who are LAMB?" bit I did some months back. Was it any surprise that >75% of the respondents were male?

    Not to me.

    All that said, I'm not disagreeing that there may be a problem - I just don't think it's nearly as significant or widespread as you (and possibly others) do.

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  16. Fletch - I know that women are a minority among film bloggers and in the film industry. As a rugged, old feminist, all I can say is that there are a lot of reasons for that that have nothing to do with the preferences of women. I do know that I've heard of actresses who had "topped out" before 30 and turned to directing because they couldn't get work acting. I also know that a lot of women--beginning with Mary Pickford in the 1920s--started their own production companies just to get work that they want to do, or just to get work, period. I can name at least one woman actress who showed tremendous skill in her directorial debut and then was thwarted in all attempts to make other films by her husband, Elia Kazan--Barbara Loden (http://ferdyonfilms.com/2007/07/wanda-1970-1.php).

    Does it matter that there aren't more women in all the aspects of cinema? I would say that it does. If women aren't making films, then their varied life experiences won't be reflected in the popular culture. We'll just get the same popular chick flicks. We won't see middle-aged women as they really are, or old women, or girls or young women. For that matter, no minority culture in the film industry has prolific, accurate images of themselves. This is a problem.

    Films are modern myths, and myths help us learn about how to live. People need to see themselves, not as caricature old ladies, or man-hungry/vengeful divorcees, or gang bangers, but as they are and can be. I have a review on my site for a film called "Time to Die" that spells out how I feel on this point. As a female blogger, I'm trying to let my readers in on the conversation that women in front of and behind the camera are having that will help them understand their own humanity. I'm also giving my perspective on the films that the majority male bloggers have already passed their best judgment on. You'd be surprised what y'all miss. I also have a brilliant young man as a blog partner to take up films for which I'm going to have blindspots and to speak about the male experience.

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  17. I absolutely adore "Waitress." It's one of those movies I fell immediately in love with, and have shown to just about everyone I know. Shelley showed great talent it's a tragedy that she is no longer with us.

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  18. Bravo, Marilyn.

    That was fabulous. I couldn't have said it better myself. Though I've stated many similar things in my brief time blogging.

    I bow to you. You're my new personal hero.

    Danny, you've NEVER SEEN ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE????! It makes Waitress look like overcooked beef.

    Sweetie, the fantastic ELLEN BURSTYN won the 1974 Best Actress Oscar for this performance. JODIE FOSTER has one of her first featured roles and she's hysterical ("So long, suckers!!!"). Alice and her kid have a real interesting relationship. It's loving but quite adversarial. He's funny as hell.

    In case you're still hesitating, three words: Scorsese directed it.

    *shakes head*

    Time's a wastin, pal...

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  19. Marilyn, you needn't be. Someone has to speak the truth.

    I think you're wonderful...

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  20. I hope this discussion picks up again in the future. Didn't realize it would happen here, but it makes sense.

    Despite the stats, Fletch, I'm still leaning toward the "this is a problem" side, even though I'm certainly open to hearing more about it. Marilyn's reasoning in her reply resonates pretty strongly with me (especially if it means more romantic comedies like Waitress and less like the poor male-written and directed versions that come out so regularly), and I still feel that despite the numbers (go figure - 25% of my blogroll is female), the creative interest and desire is there. As you say, it's a debate where both sides have to speculate.

    It's nice to have a favorite little gem to share with others, isn't it, Matthew?

    Haha, Miranda, the fact doesn't escape me that you mention Ellen Burstyn's Oscar win for Alice (as I love mentioning her snub due to, ahem, you know who). Funny coincidence.

    I'd heard of the movie before, but with that in mind and Scorsese and Foster in her younger years, I've obviously missed a classic.

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  21. No worries, Daniel. I think my point of view got skewed and lost along the way.

    Suffice it to say that I'm certainly not of the opinion that film should be a male-dominated field, only that I don't think there's any sort of vast conspiracy leading it that way.

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  22. Fletch - I really don't want to belabor this too much, but the word conspiracy makes the idea that women are underrepresented for reasons other than personal preference sound crackpot. It's hard to break free of social norms to understand what may be going on under the surface. Check out the doc by Rosanna Arquette called Looking for Debra Winger for some perspectives from women in the industry.

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  23. I too loved Waitress, but probably for more personal reasons.

    I went to see it the day after my birthday, and a week before my wedding, with my Mom. Emotions were already running high with everything going on in real life, but then Jenna's unwanted pregnancy and gaining the strength to raise a child (a daughter) on her own slightly mirrored my mother's story when she had me. It's not exactly the same, but it was enough to turn us both into sobbing messes by the end of the film.

    I think for my Mom's birthday this year, I'll make a donation to the Adrienne Shelley Foundation to help support all those future female filmmakers.

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  24. I really struggled when reviewing this one. My gut response was that it was 'just ok', but at the same time I wanted to give it the benefit of a doubt for being a rare movie by and about women...But then that felt chickenshit and patronizing.
    In the end, it gets bonus points for being a rarity, but I still wish it was a better movie.
    The big problem I had was that Jeremy Sisto was such a TV-Movie-of-the-week stereotype bad husband character. Had he been toned down a notch and been more realistic, it would've strengthened the movie. At least the dramatic half would've been more satisfying.

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  25. To be continued, Fletch and Marilyn...I appreciate the conversation.

    Interesting connection - can either of you whip up amazing pies, Rachel? Seriously, though, that's a nice story (as I said, I would expect the right person in the right situation to really feel this movie), and a really nice gift idea.

    Craig, it's this fact that you so simply state - "In the end, it gets bonus points for being a rarity, but I still wish it was a better movie." - that prevented me from bumping this into the "A's" zone.

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  26. I enjoyed "Waitress," but never reviewed it because I didn't review movies back then. I always see it at the DVD store, but something stops me from buying it.

    Maybe some day, it has been a while since I saw it, and remember liking it a lot, and at the end, when I realised that it was the last film Shelly would ever make, I was really, really sad. She had so much potential. But, she made "Waitress" with a lot of heart, and it shone through. It had a really warm, natural, effortless charm that was so easy to like.

    Anyway, lovely review of a lovely film.

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  27. Nick touches on something that seems to be lost on a lot of people. The warmth and heart in the movie.

    I loved her support group of friends, even though they weren't very well fleshed out characters, they were funny and I liked how they all supported each other.

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  28. Good point about the friends, Craig. I kinda forgot about them. That guy Ogie almost grew on me, too, as cloying as he was.

    It's weird, Nick, thinking about movies before you reviewed them. For me that's less than a year ago. I still don't write reviews for everything that I see (especially some of these summer movies), but I nonetheless find myself doing it in my head while I'm in the movie. I never thought I'd get to that point, or at least thought I wouldn't want to, but it seems uncontrollable.

    I guess what I'm saying is that I don't know if or how you might see Waitress differently a second time around, now with your critic's hat permanently on.

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  29. I had heard good things about "Waitress" before I saw it, and I think highly of it now so I can only hope I don't think any less of it, because that would suck.

    It's the kind of movie I don't even want to analyze because it's just so, I don't know, "gooey"? I cannot explain how it made me feel, but it made me feel good and hungry and entertained, and warmed my stone cold heart until now even.

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  30. lol, gooey! That's about how I felt after My Blueberry Nights. I know exactly what you mean, though. Some movies you just want to soak in and not think too hard about.

    Unfortunately that's getting harder to do, but that's my own fault...

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  31. I think it's a winner, and I like how it's unabashedly sentimental. It's not perfect but it has a big, beating heart. Great experience seeing this with the girlfriend and a theatre full of females on a pretty hot June afternoon last year. Love Andy Griffith in this especially.

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  32. Your reaction to the sentimentality might depend on your mood at the time. Certainly it's a good call for a romantic summer date with your girlfriend!

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  33. "If Adrienne Shelly hadn't been murdered, I daresay nobody would have heard of it."

    Really? I watched it not knowing that she had been killed. But there's a good chance that the programmers who screened the film for me and fellow theatre-goers knew about the sad news. Hmmm...

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  34. I forgot about that bit in Marilyn's comment, Scott. I want to agree with you, but then I wonder. She was killed shortly before it premiered at Sundance. Now we know there are a LOT of films that screen at Sundance and are never heard of or seen again, at least not by a wide audience.

    So the question is, did Waitress make it out of Sundance on its own merit? It wasn't nominated for any awards there. I hope nobody thinks of me as callous for mentioning this.

    I'm not saying it's a bad movie. I don't think it is. But you've just now made me think about Marilyn's comment.

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