Discomfort and Joy
Adrienne Shelly'S Final Movie A Fitting Tribute To Her Awkwardly Lovely Sensibility
After almost 20 years of hustle and honing a complexly oddball/sweet aesthetic in the vision thing-unfriendly waters of Indiewood, Adrienne Shelly was murdered at her Greenwich Village apartment Nov. 1, 2006, at the age of 40. There's no replacing the humanist void that Shelly left with her passing, but there is the solace that with Waitress, the writer/director/actress was able finally to get quite wonderfully right an aesthetic composed of almost nothing but polar opposites.
A graduate of both way-off-Broadway theater and the smart-ass, stilted-for-art's-sake ethos of Hal Hartley, whose 1989 The Unbelievable Truth and 1990 Trust were vastly humanized by her performances, Shelly sought in her six short and feature movies to combine elements of both forms, sprinkled liberally with a sort of bobble-headed romanticism that felt doomed to be damned with the faint praise of "quirky."
A similar fate appears to await Waitress in it first 10 minutes as it struggles to find a balance between one-liners, Sundance-style eccentricity, and a deep case of the cutes. In a "Deep South" diner, Jenna (Keri Russell) is a misanthropic waitress whose face is set in a permanent puckered frown. She shares barbed remarks on life, love, and the pointlessness of both with fellow plate-slingers Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Shelly). Jenna sublimates her loveless marriage through pie-making, with her kooky creations shown in delish-looking inserts. Still, it's a seemingly overprecious avocation, but with basic exposition dispensed with, the movie's stylistic polarities mesh, or perhaps you simply grow comfortable with Shelly's screwball but aesthetically consistent alternate universe.
Jenna, abused, neglected, resentful, and adorable despite herself, realizes that a night of blackout sex has landed her pregnant with the child of snake-mean husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto ). Her reaction is one of abject horror and loathing for the nourishment-sucking "parasite" within--which leads to a consult with new-in-town, married obstetrician Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion).
She finds the all-thumbs but hunky doctor weird, annoying, maddening even; he's fascinated despite himself. Finally, Jenna just can't take all the erotic tension she's denying and flings herself across the cold steel gynecological exam table and kisses him so fiercely that you worry for his mouth.
The scene could have been tasteless, obvious, stupid--or worse. But by this point, you've completely bought into Shelly's alternative universe, and the scene earns its applause.
Jenna and Dr. Pomatter's palsied attempts to figure out what to do with their new love allows Shelly opportunity to sift through sweet digressions about her other characters, which in turn riff on/support the movie's main themes and pay off dramatically in their own right. And so Becky frets about her mismatched breasts while coveting her own yummy, dirty secret. Love, or something similar, nearly stalks its way into withdrawn Dawn's life courtesy Ogie (Eddie Jemison), an IRS auditor who comes off as a Southern Pee-wee Herman prone to serenades of impromptu poetry.
Andy Griffith--good God, you may have forgotten what a gimlet-eyed, stealthy delight the man is--shows up as Old Joe, the diner's owner, negotiating a seemingly beyond-hokey arc from curmudgeon to Jenna's spiritual adviser. And as we're saying nothing about the fate of Jenna's pregnancy and her affair with Dr. Pomatter, we'll instead dote for a moment on the miracle that is Nathan Fillion.
As his work in Firefly, Slither, and the prematurely canceled Drive demonstrate, there is nobody who can spitball a one-liner or measure a double take with Fillion's aplomb. Constantly aware of and bemused by his cartoon Harrison Ford-ness, he negotiates his large frame through scenes like a kid unsurely piloting a Game Boy avatar by remote. There's this warm, protective smolder to his gaze that almost redeems the idea of patrician.
Russell rises to the Fillion challenge. The years have dulled the too-perky gleam of her Felicity stint, and she uses that fact to maximum effect. Like anyone who's suffered under a rotten regime, she's too everything--too brittle, too abrupt, too judgmental--and only comfortable existing in realms of black and white. As for Shelly's Dawn, it's an underplayed act of quiet, frightened mousiness, until a sudden, hilarious word-spewing freakout that reminds us that, had Waitress failed, filmdom would have enjoyed one of its great character actresses for years, if only.
While Shortbus gets big ink for showing faux edgy narcissists screwing for real, and Desperate Housewives and mainstream movies in general claim extra-marriage excursions as either clamped-mouth naughty bits or eventual punishment fodder, Waitress is subversive by sheer value of being grown-up.
A maternity comedy aimed at aging hipsters that makes no pretensions to being remotely cool, Waitress presents adultery as an exciting but ultimately dead-ended, potentially destructive endeavor. But it also demonstrates how this affair was essential to both Jenna and Dr. Pomatter escaping their respective ruts. Shelly doesn't judge or endorse. No character is too minor not to be spared a humanizing detail. Even Earl is ultimately more sad, puny, and pitiable than monstrous. Such wisdom and generosity is scarce in America and its cinema, and even more precious now that Shelly is gone from the ranks of both.