Adrienne Shelly | 103 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13
Whenever a star, director, writer, or other key creative dies during or around the production of a film, it’s apparently tempting to draw some kind of correlation between their death and the themes or content of their work. To force such a link between the murder of writer/director/co-star Adrienne Shelly and Waitress seems inappropriate, however, when the film is so much about life.
The basic plot could be made to sound identical to Juno’s, if one really wanted (I don’t though, so this won’t): Keri Russell (TV’s Felicity) plays titular waitress Jenna, a genius creator of delicious pies, who finds herself unwelcomely pregnant after a drunken night with her controlling, abusive husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto, TV’s Kidnapped). When Jenna visits her (female) doctor, she’s been replaced by (male) Dr Pomatter (Nathan Fillion, TV’s Firefly), an awkward, slightly bumbling man who, to cut the story slightly short, she falls for and they begin to have an affair — despite his being married (to fellow doctor Francine (Darby Stanchfield, TV’s Mad Men)).
Jenna tries to keep her pregnancy secret from Earl, with the support of her friends Becky (Cheryl Hines, TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm), who has a secret of her own, and Dawn (Shelly), who’s being stalked by her one-time five-minute-date Ogie (Eddie Jemison, TV’s Hung). And she tries to keep her affair with Dr Pomatter secret from everyone, though it seems she can’t hide anything from perceptive elderly diner-owner Joe (Andy Griffith, TV’s Matlock).
I know I recently said I don’t give plot descriptions, but it’s these threads that illuminate Waitress’ life-affirming themes. Becky and Dawn show there’s hope for happiness with whatever hand you’ve been dealt, even where you least expect it; Ogie, Joe (and diner chef Cal (TV’s occasional guest star Lew Temple)) show you can’t judge a book by its cover; Joe also offers Jenna the gift of premature hindsight thanks to his reminisces and regrets; and then there’s the baby, who, aside from the obvious, represents fresh starts. None of these are hammered home quite as bluntly as I have here — not even the baby one — but my observations show, I suppose, what I took from them.
Though every performance excels, Shelly’s screenplay is the real star. To bring up the Juno similarity again, it features a quite idiosyncratic style of dialogue, particularly when delivered through the cast’s Southern accents. It’s also very funny, but never allows this to interfere with the more serious elements. Some have criticised it for putting so much levity near such tragic topics; I can only assume they live in a different world to our’s, presumably one where either everything is punctuated by a laughter track or one where everything is underscored by Coldplay.
From its promotional material and vaguest of outlines (Keri Russell leaves unhappy marriage for lovely Nathan Fillion!), Waitress looks like another breezy rom-com, the kind of thing that stars Jennifer Aniston — a chick flick, or to sound inappropriately less derogatory, “woman’s film”. Waitress is a “woman’s film”, but in a good way: written and directed from a female perspective, with its central roles being female, it doesn’t pander to a perceived female demographic and nor does it bellow “this is what we women think, and it’s so different to you damn men” — it’s more subtle than that.
Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar by beating men at their own game — and that was probably for the best as a first-timer, dodging accusations of “well, she just made a woman’s film, didn’t she?” from the off — but hopefully it’s nudged the door open for female voices on a wider range of subjects. To slightly go against what I said in that opening paragraph, it’s a loss that Adrienne Shelly won’t get a chance to be among them.
The UK TV premiere of Waitress is on Film4 tomorrow at 9pm.
Waitress is on Film4 +1 today, Monday 28th July 2014, at 7:50pm.