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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Waitress (review)

Slice of Life Pie

It’s funny how we can go from a comedy about molestation — Garry Marshall’s repulsive Georgia Rule — that’s not just desperately unfunny but actively disgusting to a comedy about professionally unethical behavior, spousal abuse, adultery, and stalking that is warmly bittersweet, genuinely funny, and sincerely heartfelt. But there we are.
It’s all in the tone, and the attitude, and the presentation. For all that Waitress is indie-quirky and whipsmart droll, there’s nothing glib about it. It has a feeling of… I don’t want to say secret insight about the experience of being a woman, but there we are again: the experience of half the human race is so often seemingly shrouded in the cryptic and the arcane because it is so often simply not within the purview of the male-type people who make the vast majority of movies. Even the few women who do get behind the camera are frequently constrained either overtly or — far more often, I suspect — by the unspoken cultural attitudes that inform the film industry. Movies are almost always representing a male perspective, even the ones that are supposedly “about” women. (See, ahem, Georgia Rule, written, directed, and produced by men.)

I don’t know how Adrienne Shelly got around that, whether she raised the small budget for what turned out to be her last film herself or what. But it’s what makes Waitress so refreshingly different. It’s in the little details, like how we first get a hint of what a supreme asshole poor waitress Jenna’s (Keri Russell: Mission: Impossible III, The Upside of Anger) husband is: he announces his already obvious arrival by car with not one beep of the horn but many; a roll of the eyes between Jenna and her waitress friends (Cheryl Hines [RV, Herbie: Fully Loaded] and Shelly [Factotum, Revolution #9]) screams volumes about all the niggly little idiotic bullshit women put up with from men and never say a word about, about all the psychic space men shoulder their way into whether they’re invited or not, about the arrogance in the thought-free assumption that that space belongs to men in the first place. (That he turns out to be much worse that merely the ordinary kind of insensitive jerk is no surprise.)

Saying such things will get me called “feminist,” like it’s an insult, like that space does belong to men and how dare I suggest otherwise. But this is the experience of women whether we hint at it or not. If Waitress is a feminist film — and it is; oh, it is — it is not because it is loud but because it is quiet, because it is about the suffering silently and not about the breaking free. Until, of course, the moment that is about breaking free.

Jenna finds herself pregnant with the spawn of the louse, Earl. (Jeremy Sisto [The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, Thirteen] must be an actual sweetheart, because he plays the horrible husband with a kind of understanding that only an enlightened soul can bring. Or else Shelly was a brilliant director. Or it could be both.) She does not want this baby, because it means being forever tied to Earl, from whom she is trying to escape, however subtly. And there are more “secrets” of the three billion females on the planet revealed: Pregnancy is not always a joy. There is no such thing as the “mothering instinct.” We do not all want to be mothers, and we do not all feel the need to apologize for that. Not that there’s a damn thing wrong with motherhood or babies or families — it’s just that it’s not so straightforward or easy or “natural” as the mother-deifying male perspective would like to believe. (Men will never know how many women, even women happily married to perfectly lovely men, cry at the news that they’re in a family way. And not tears of happiness, either.)

Life is messy: really messy. This is, if nothing else, the tale Waitress has to tell. Good people do things that aren’t noble or decent, like Jenna and the affair she finds herself startled to be falling into with, of all men, the only gynecologist in her small town, Dr. Pomatter (the perfectly lovely Nathan Fillion: Slither, Serenity). This is very bad in so many ways, not the least of which is the one that has to do with doctorly ethics. But there we are. Shit happens, and sometimes the shit is good. And sometimes the shit is about how a sweet man can be so desirable because he listens to you, because he hugs you with nothing expected in return. I’m not sure why it’s any big mystery what women want: fewer Earls, more Dr. Pomatters.

And yet, Waitress is, at its heart and for as moving as it turns out to be, fluffy and airy and silly. It’s not suggesting that having an affair with your OB-GYN is a good way to cope with an abusive husband — and Earl is, whew, a nightmare. It doesn’t intend to downplay the very real plight of women who are, as one character pegs it, “so poor and afraid.” Waitress is overbright, a heightened, sharpened trill on coping — like by inventing wild new pies, as Jenna does as an escape — on how not to cope — by having an affair with your doctor, no matter how cute he and attentive he is.

The film is dark and light at the same time: deal with it. It’s kinda like how a movie about silly pie combinations can take on an extra unexpected depth of meaning through the fact that the woman who made it was murdered before she could know how warmly her movie would be received and how much it would end up meaning to so many women. Shelly was murdered in November 2006 in a way that could only have come about because she was a woman. Not that it was any kind of sex crime — it wasn’t. She will killed by a man who couldn’t stand her objecting to the psychic space he was taking up, a construction worker whom she had asked to keep the noise down, for Christ’s sake; can you imagine a more trivial reason to commit murder? Or that the same would have happened to a man who complained? It’s a grim underline to this spritely film that only deepens its significance as a feminist statement. But I’d rather, of course, that it had stayed a mere sprite of a flick and her around to make more just like it.

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MPAA: rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and thematic elements

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • JoshDM

    Man, MAJ. This review just goes to show that you are SUCH a feminist.

    ;-D

  • Magess

    I don’t… we must have seen different movies. I don’t understand how this is essentially a feminist film. What does Jenna DO?

    I mean, she’s having Earl’s baby, an involuntary act on her part which then proceeds with a biological process that she has and wants no part in.

    She doesn’t escape her crappy husband. I mean, she makes motions at it, hiding money and what not. But she doesn’t hide money to move out, she hides it to win a contest and then move out, which is like one step removed from reality.

    And how does she perform her escape act? Well, an old man leaves her money. An involuntary action done to her. And this allows her to live the life she wants, saving her from her crappy husband in a way she could never have achieved on her own.

    And Dr. Pommater? The only man that was nice to her? The one she wanted to run away with? Stomped his heart to bits and smiled about it. What’s the message here? Even good men are bad? It’s ok to hurt them, they’re just men after all? Or maybe just that women can use men as much as the opposite can be true.

    As far as I could see, Jenna, who did nothing to change her situation, had a life altering experience through no will or action of her own, dumped the only man that loved her, and lived off a sugardaddy who felt sorry for her and left her money. And now she’s “free”. I just… wha?

  • MaryAnn

    What does “feminist” mean to you, Magess? If you think it means burning bras, then of course this is not going to be a “feminist” film to you. It is feminist in that it is about a female perspective that is not as acquiescent as it appears to be.

    And yes, she DOES escape the husband. Did you leave before the end of the film?

    If you got “It’s okay to hurt good men” or “It’s okay to use good men” from this film, then yes, we did see different movies. This movie is about the complicated, not always pleasant or nice middle-ground shades of gray between easy black-and-white morality. Having an affair maybe isn’t all bad… but it isn’t all good, either.

    And if you think that Jenna has no will or action of her own, then again, we did indeed see different movies.

  • Katie

    I saw this movie last night and was it was so warm and so loving and so alive that I just fell in love with it. It’s subtle and sweet and hits parts of you that you didn’t know needed touching.

    And all I could think of when it ended was how tragic it was because Adrienne Shelly should still be with us to make more films like this.

    (And psst…I’m here partially because you are a feminist.)

  • Amy

    Waitress is one of the best films I’ve seen all year because of the adept directing and winning screenplay of Adrienne Shelly.

    I’m a feminist and happy to say so and I find it pretty sad that in 2007, the word remains so dirty. Look it up in the dictionary, it means equality for women on the same levels as men and we still don’t make the same amount of money, right out of college, for one thing.

    I found this film to have many fantasy elements and humor and unexpected bliss that makes it so special.

  • Magess

    I don’t think it’s about burning bras. But shouldn’t it have something to do with inherent power? And an exercise of that power? The female perspective aspect I can see. I was actually kind of shocked to see someone on screen declare a baby to be a parasite, mostly because it’s something I’ve thought myself and never thought anyone else would understand.

    But what seems to come from that radical rejection of being the good mommy and the nice girl is that she’s still tied to her husband until another man comes to save her.

    Jenna has will, I’ll give her that. She wants things. She wishes things were different. But ultimately, what does she do that makes any of the circumstances in her life change?

    And yes, I know she escapes her husband, but she does so thanks to the deus ex machina kindness of a rich dying man. That still leaves her life circumstances out of her control.

  • Drave

    I could be called a feminist, but I hate the term because of the implications of its existence. The fact that people who think women are equal to men are called feminists is sick and sad, and shows how far the world still has to go. I would rather think of myself as a humanist. And I can’t wait to see this movie.

  • MaryAnn

    But shouldn’t it have something to do with inherent power? And an exercise of that power?

    But that is exactly what *Waitress* is about! Jenna is finding her power, and she is finding it in a place that does NOT require men. She doesn’t learn of her windfall until AFTER she has booted Earl from her life! Her windfall may make her new life easier, but she had already embarked upon that journey before it.

  • Katie

    I saw this movie last night and was it was so warm and so loving and so alive that I just fell in love with it. It’s subtle and sweet and hits parts of you that you didn’t know needed touching.

    And all I could think of when it ended was how tragic it was because Adrienne Shelly should still be with us to make more films like this.

    (And psst…I’m here partially because you are a feminist.)

  • Yes, this was a good movie.

    It is a shame that Ms. Shelly is not still with us.

  • Jeremy Sisto is a brilliant actor. He spent a few years playing Billy, the wacko brother of Brenda on Six Feet Under. He’s been knocking around Hollywood since childhood (he has a small part as Kevin Kline and Mary McDonnell’s son in Grand Canyon). A few years back, he leapt from playing Jesus in one made for TV movie to Julius Caesar in another one.

  • MaryAnn

    Yeah, Sisto was great in *Six Feet Under*…

  • Just got back from seeing this movie with some friends of mine… loved it. Good performances all around, especially Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion (he’s always good). Loved the humor, especially the way it came across as funny without trying to be funny.

    We all thought that Andy Griffith was a perfect addition to the film, and yes, it was pretty obvious (to me, at least) that he was going to provide a means for Jenna to escape Earl. Glad to see also that Jenna didn’t take the clichéd route of wooing Dr. Tom away from his wife, especially when she saw how much his wife loved him. Sometimes being good means giving up what you want in order not to hurt someone else.

    It would be sad for Ms. Shelly to have died under any circumstance; for her to have so much potential, as partially realized in this film, and then to die so needlessly and senselessly, makes it so much sadder. I would have liked to have seen more films by her.

  • “Sometimes being good means giving up what you want in order not to hurt someone else.”
    –Clayj

    Amen.

  • BTW, just read that Jeremy Sisto is joining the cast of Law & Order next season, replacing Milena Govich as Jesse L. Martin’s partner.

  • I’m in agreement with Magess on this movie.

    ***SPOILERS***

    I really wanted to like it, but so many things bothered me, particularly the last 10 minutes of the movie.

    Let’s revive the abortion issue (a few folks were discussing it vis a vis “Knocked Up”). Jenna hates the idea of having this baby, and she has a little money saved up. It never made an iota of sense that she didn’t have an abortion. (I decided not to go see “Knocked Up” but the woman in that case seems to have a career that pays enough to support her and a baby, so abortion didn’t need to be as much of an issue there.) Much as Earl was around her almost constantly, she still managed to see her obstetrician for months without him knowing.

    Jenna never really “found her strength.” She magically loved her baby instantly and magically got a pile of money (and, apparently, the pie restaurant, too). If she had found her strength, she would have walked (and then there wouldn’t have been a movie, but…)

    And she winds up staying in the same town where her no-good-husband and almost-no-good lover still live???

    The editing was quite careless. We needed to see a little about Cal and his wife, and not just hear about them. We needed a little less of Andy Griffith (glad as I was to see him, every single scene with him dragged). Most of the scenes with “the elf” were also a bit long.

    I liked the tone of the movie and enjoyed Keri Russell’s voiceover. The casting was fine. But the script, in places, made no sense.

  • anna

    If you liked this movie you should see Fried Green Tomatoes. It’s about the same thing but much more interesting I think.

  • Aims

    But shouldn’t it have something to do with inherent power? And an exercise of that power? But that is exactly what *Waitress* is about! Jenna is finding her power, and she is finding it in a place that does NOT require men. She doesn’t learn of her windfall until AFTER she has booted Earl from her life! Her windfall may make her new life easier, but she had already embarked upon that journey before it.

    I was about to mention this, but I see you already MAJ. And you’re absolutely right. Jenna spent the whole movie trying to come up with the best way (and by that I mean safest) to get out of her marriage. She hides money to win the pie contest so she will have enough money to start over to actually leave and get far away from Earl. This to me was one of the truest parts of the story. Earl takes her money from her at the end of her day, it’s part of how he keep her tied to him, finances. So many stay in relationships just like this because they are scared and can’t afford to really get away. And women with children find it even more diffictult, because struggling to feed yourself is one thing, but trying to help anyone else can cause you to drown.

    MAJ, I this is my favorite review of yours I’ve ever read. You just understand and captured the essence of the film so perfectly with you review. I loved it. And I loved the film. Thank you.

  • I have known two women who were in similar situations. One was lucky enough to have kids who were already grown. One wasn’t. One had to go back to her abusive ex due to circumstances beyond her control. One did not. One eventually got away and made it on her own. One also got away but was still struggling last time I talked to her.

    I found it really funny that the Libertas site posted a review that panned this movie for promoting adultery. Never mind that this is one of the few “pro-adultery” movies I’ve seen in which the woman voluntarily gives up her adulterous relationship. Never mind that this movie resists the urge to make things easy for Jenna by making the spouse of her adulterous lover turn out to be a harridan.

    You know the funniest thing about that Libertas review? The same guy who wrote it also wrote a subsequent piece praising “Doctor Zhivago.” Because it’s apparently okay to cheat on your wife but not your husband…

  • Jenn aka the Fem Dork

    Man, I love Mary Ann’s reviews. Even when I disagree with her consensus. As far as the “female perspective”, I agree with Mary Ann, because that is always refreshing. This is why I loved Ghost World (finally, a movie about a REAL female geek who is not just a hottie wearing glasses! Not that female geeks can’t be good-looking, but it’s a certain “geek essence” that movies fail to capture with girl geeks. But perhaps this is because most young actresses were probably popular girls, so they really have no idea what it’s like to be awkward and unfabulous…but I digress). It’s always great to see a movie dealing with women realistically. I especially loved the ambivalence Jenna felt at her pregnancy, but I agree with Laurie about how she “magically” loved the baby when it was born…pure Hollywood. As someone who has had a baby, these feelings don’t just go away..It’s almost as if the movie said it was okay to feel negative about motherhood, but only if you got over it by the time the kid was born!

    And then there’s Jenna’s lack of power…she irked me. This is where I agreed more with Magess and Laurie. Yeah, “shit happens”, but all of Jenna’s shit was self inflicted. Now, A Mighty Heart: THAT woman had “shit happen”! Jenna had an unimaginable dickhole for a husband, but it didn’t stop her from spreading her legs for him, geez! AND not using birth control! I mean, she has the wherewithall to see a Gyn for her pregnancy, you can’t tell me she was ignorant. I mean for Christ’s sake, you can get free birth control at Planned Parenthood and he never has to know you’re taking a pill.

    Then there’s the Good Doctor. I’m surprised he was talked about in such a flattering way. The way I saw it, he and Earl were different sides of the same asshole coin. Sure, he was good to Jenna, kind and loving. But the fact that he cheated on his loving (not harridan) wife and chose desperate, poor, pregnant Jenna says a lot about the guy. he wasn’t that great of a human being.

    I also consider myself a feminist, and I suffer fools and foolish women very poorly. If we really want a more enlightened society maybe we should stop teaching our daughters to only think with teir hearts, have babies with douchebags, and make it so easy for some guy to cheat on his wife.

  • jorie

    I’m with you, Magess. Well said.

  • MaryAnn

    The way I saw it, he and Earl were different sides of the same asshole coin. Sure, he was good to Jenna, kind and loving. But the fact that he cheated on his loving (not harridan) wife and chose desperate, poor, pregnant Jenna says a lot about the guy. he wasn’t that great of a human being.

    But the movie doesn’t present him as a great human being, overall, even if he has does some great things as far as boosting Jenna’s self-esteem. What I really liked about the doctor is not that he is necessarily presented as a great guy — because, yes, great guys do not cheat on their wives — but because he is NOT perfect but still has *some* good qualities. I liked that, in his own way, he is as messed up as Jenna. But he’s not a terrible person, even if he does some not-very-nice things. Earl, on the other hand, is kinda a terrible person, even if he occassionally does do some nice things.

    I like that the film is not black-and-white.

    I liked that the movie acknowledges that you can’t control to whom you’re attracted, but that you can control how you deal with that attraction. It takes Jenna, at least, a while to come to the realization that the doctor is not right for her, but she DOES realize it, eventually.

    I have to admit that I was a terrible prude about such things as marital infidelity until I had some closer-to-hand experiences myself with the realities of dealing with being attracted to people you’re not married to. That doesn’t mean I condone infidelity — actually, I’m even stricter about it now — but it does mean I have a different understanding of the fact that not everything is as cut-and-dried as I once thought it was.

  • Is that your way of saying Jenny Fitzpatrick is based on some real-life people you know, MaryAnn?

    Not that I’m one to talk. I used to be a terrible prude on the same issue as well. But the older I get and the more experience I get in the real world, the less inclined I am to pass judgment on normal acts of human frailty. Especially when there are far worse actions going unpunished.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t condone infidelity either. But I can understand why otherwise good people would be tempted to go in that direction.

    And I’ve been in enough dysfunctional relationships to understand what it means to be attracted to someone you’re not supposed to be attracted to. Which might also explain why I’ve become more liberal in regard to gay rights than I used to be.

  • MaryAnn

    Is that your way of saying Jenny Fitzpatrick is based on some real-life people you know, MaryAnn?

    Jenny is very much me. But only a part of me. Fiona is also me… but only a part of me.

    These are, for the unititiated, characters in my script *Bronx Cheer*. (Warning: link goes to a PDF)

  • Josh

    No offense to MaryAnn since the review is her opinion alone, but I think her review here kept me from enjoying this film. Warmly bittersweet? Heartfelt? Sheesh. I gotta say that is has been awhile since I have seen an American film which has been nearly so void of nearly any true human emotion. The reactions in the film just seem odd to me. I understand that is the tone of the film but it certainly does not give out the sweet feeling I was expecting after reading MaryAnn’s review.

    I can understand this can be viewed as a celebration of female liberation. My problem is that the men in the film, all the way from the doctor down to the controlling husband, seem so one dimensional and portrayed as incompetent. Watching the film, I could not even relate to the female characters that well. Some of the dialogue just did not seem real to me. It’s almost too surreal. Compare this to a film like Knocked Up. The conversations in that film were heightened for comedic effect but it all seemed real. We know men and women that talk like that. We know couples that are going through the same trials and tribulations. With Waitress, the character come out and just casually say the type of dialogue that is never said in public. The characters have no internal dialogue.

    SPOILERS

    Examples of this is how Jenna just casually brings up the idea of selling her newborn for cash so she can leave her husband. I can understand this type of conversation taking place sarcastically, but not as a serious moment between three girlfriends. I can also understand how Jenna’s husband Earl is jealous of the upcoming baby, many men do go through that, as do women. But to bring it up so casually in a conversation after you find out your wife is pregnant is just out of the norm.

    The film is filled with so many of these situations. The character of Jenna just seems so cold and distant. I think I would have enjoyed this movie a lot more if I had not been told that it was a sweet and realistic film before going in.

  • MaryAnn

    My problem is that the men in the film, all the way from the doctor down to the controlling husband, seem so one dimensional and portrayed as incompetent.

    I disagree with this, but, if you feel this way… then you now know how women feel when watching most movies of any kind: the women characters are invariably half-drawn caricatures.

  • MBI

    This film is reprehensible. I wish you had spent a tenth of the venom you had for “Knocked Up” against this movie. Now here’s a film where the woman should have had an abortion. Here’s a film that IS an abortion. Yeah, being a mom makes everything better. Has Shelly ever met a single mom in her life? This film is a fairy tale in the worst way; at least “Knocked Up” had the hint at an unhappy future. Jenna is a human being incapable of being in any kind of adult relationship — she’s cold, deceitful, withholding, weak and, yes, emotionally abusive. At least her loathsome turd husband has the excuse of being too dumb to understand what he did wrong. God help the poor kid raised by such a woman. Repulsive.

    I don’t think this film is as pro-adultery or anti-male as some of the other people who didn’t like it, but it’s certainly pro-female in an entirely stupid way. It’s unable to judge Jenna for her actions, or for her role in creating her terrible marriage.

  • MaryAnn

    I wish you had spent a tenth of the venom you had for “Knocked Up” against this movie.

    So I should have invented some venom when I didn’t feel it?

    I think these two movies — *Knocked Up* and *Waitress* — prove that it’s not the subject matter, it’s how that subject matter is handled that makes or breaks a movie.

  • MBI

    No, I’m saying I wish you had agreed with me. I’m not saying “Knocked Up” is a perfect film, I struggle just to say it’s a good film, but it seems like everything you accuse “Knocked Up” of, “Waitress” is guilty of ten times over.

  • RespectfullyDisagree

    I think you’re being a little unfair here. First, you can’t get free birth control at PP, at least not anymore. It required a medical examination and a subscription which costs money, at least in modern California. I can only suspect that they make it even harder in the South, if things are different.

    Also “didn’t stop him from spreading her legs for him”? Are we watching the same movie? She says no every time, he just doesn’t always respect it. She is clearly in a abusive relationship and his little “you think you can say no? I provide everything for you” speech made it clear that this was just another part of her life he controlled. Rape is not always at gunpoint by a stranger in some dark alleyway. Life is much more subtle.

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