Apr 24, 2007

On Waitress

Even in the shadow of its auteur’s untimely and tragic death, Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress brims with an insistent and occasionally infectious sensibility. It is not a great film and hardly aspires to be, and although its pleasures are only mildly satisfying, one leaves the theatre taken with its anonymous, working class southern milieu, deft production design and unwillingness to offer clichéd reassurances about the redemptive nature of love. It’s semi-rural southern locale is rendered unspecific and slightly patronizing by some of its sitcom level representations, although this twenty-first century Mayberry, complete with Andy Griffith as a eccentric southern entrepreneur, is rendered beautifully by production designer Ramsay Avery and DP Matthew Irving. Still, as much as the audience can find convincing reasons to remain vaguely intrigued by this tale of diner waitress/pie making maestro Jenna’s (Keri Russell) liberation from a bad marriage to a mean and underdeveloped hick (Jeremy Sisto) and from a desperate affair with a square, Connecticut transplant of a physician (Nathan Fillion), all set in motion, of course, by an unexpected pregnancy for this oh so typically repressed southern belle, none of the regional authenticity of a Junebug or an All The Real Girls breaks through in the final film by the gifted Queens native. And you really want it to.

It becomes a larger disappointment due to the number of things Shelly gets right, especially her own supporting turn as Jenna’s friend and co-worker Dawn, who with Becky (Cheryl Hines) have some terrific comedic moments as members of Jenna’s unsuspecting support group. They too have their romantic troubles, although each pales in comparison to the deception and abuse evident in Jenna’s ordeal with Earl (Sisto), an emotional mutant, whose childlike neediness is only trumped by his crackling temper and roiling insecurities.

The deck, however, feels stacked – we never get any sense of his larger emotional issues or how Jenna would have addressed them at different, less entropic point in their relationship. Too much is withheld or shorthanded for us to make much sense of them as a couple. Her feelings of desperation are only exacerbated by the unexpected pregnancy, which seems to be a result of a drunken sexual encounter with Earl, one that is nothing more than a regrettable anomaly to our protagonist. Russell performance, all though competent, never makes Jenna’s marital troubles or her attraction and eventual seduction of Dr. Pomatter (Fillion) feel truly lived in. She exploits the comedic possibilities of this situation at only the safest, most obvious level and never seems to brim with a larger emotional life, so little seems at stake in Shelly’s narrative and frustration begins to ensue as the audience is asked to empathize with her plight when think to themselves – why doesn’t break this series of unfufilling relationships with more vigor?

In some of the film’s more graceful moments, Shelly shows a gift for irony and a light comedic touch that recalls what much of Penny Marshall’s work seems to be getting after and never quite reaches. The film’s most enjoyable interchanges are between Griffith and Russell, he self-consciously playing the unhinged diner owner, coyly demanding contradictory things from his waitress, with Russell as the only woman who can reclaim the elements of gentility and warmth within him. Shelly handles their delicate exchanges, which include just a touch of autumnal courtship, with a sweetness that this film has in exhibits in spades. Although I wasn’t completely willing to give in, like the artful, succulent pies which give Jenna her reason d’etre, this final work by one of New York independent film communities most beloved performers goes down warm and smooth.