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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

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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