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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

DVD REVIEW: Waitress (2007) ****

Waitress (2007) DVD cover art

rated PG-13 (for sexual content, language and thematic elements)
1 hr. 44 min.

written & directed by: Adrienne Shelly
produced by: Michael Roiff

If you like pies, watching a movie comfortably dish out real characters in real situations without apology....lemme give you a tip, Adrienne Shelly's "Waitress" is for you. Released right at the start of the summer zeitgeist on May 2nd, along with a lil film called "Spider-Man 3", it received rave reviews by critics and gained quite a word-of-mouth following. There was already significant buzz around the film when it debuted at Sundance in January. Most of that buzz was bittersweet because Shelly, the film's writer, director and co-star had been murdered two months earlier. Many in the film community had wondered if her indie was picked up for distribution simply because it had such a mysterious behind-the-scenes story. There was the curiosity of whether or not the film was actually good or just a movie with a sad real-life story.

Well, it turns out this isn't just a good film, but a great one that tells a funny and warm-hearted story about finding happiness, and the things people do while stuck in a place that can't find a way out of. Shelly's screenplay is witty, even poetic, and she demonstrates an seldom-seen understanding of human nature and an affection for her characters. She clearly understood that sometimes the most joyful happy endings only come after enduring some trials.

The title waitress is Jenna (Keri Russell), and she has indeed suffered her share of tribulation. She is young and pretty and an expert maker of pies, the envy of her friends and co-workers at Joe's Pie Diner in the little Southern town where the film is set. But no one would trade places with her for a minute, because she's married to Earl (Jeremy Sisto), a stifling derelict who is so insecure that he only knows how to love her by controlling her. He won't let her own a car or even keep her own tip money. In her narration, she states how he changed after they got married and that she hasn't loved him in years but one has to wonder how they ever got together or why she would stay with him.

So there she is, sad and trapped in a bad situation where her only hope is to secretly store away enough cash to leave Earl and start over somewhere else. Then wouldn't ya know it, she gets pregnant after one night when Earl got her drunk. She admits to doing crazy things when she's drunk with her defenses were down "like sleeping with my husband" and now she's with child. She's not thrilled about it in the least bit but she's not going to abort it. She's going to take care of herself while she's pregnant, but she has no interest in this baby. This is one of the first characters I've seen on the screen where those instinctual motherly feelings just don't kick in.

Cheryl Hines , Keri Russell and Adrienne Shelly in Fox Searchlight's Waitress

Jenna's two friends are her only real family and they happen to also be waitresses at Joe's Pie Diner. Becky (Cheryl Hines), the saucier one, is married to a never-seen old invalid and is constantly sparring with grouchy restaurant manager, Cal (Lew Temple). Dawn (Shelly) is single and trying not to let her optimism give way to despair as she continues to get older without finding love. The three women love and support one another through all their various trials, and they make some fine-looking pies all the while. There are so many different type of pies made and/or described in this movies, my mouth was watering as I watched. Shelly does a fantastic job using pie-making as an outlet for Jenna. She knows she makes killer pies and feels that making them is the only escape she has from her train-wreck of a life.

As if being married to a jerk and pregnant with a baby she doesn't want weren't enough, Jenna's life becomes more complicated when she meets her new OB-GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). He's married, handsome, nervous, and a little odd. Call it hormones but before you know it, Jenna is throwing herself at him and their quirky affair clumsily takes off. Now there are viewers who may not like where the story goes from her with both married people having an affair. To me these characters don't make great choices and that's what's so refreshingly real about them. It's too bad some viewers can't withhold their judgment.

One of the best things about the film is how Shelly doesn't denounce its characters' questionable behavior, nor does it condone it. It just lets them be who they are, flaws and all. Jenna knows it isn't right for her, a married woman, to be seeing Dr. Pomatter, a married man. But we also see what she knows: that this doctor actually listens to her and cares for her. When she's with him, she feels happy and safe....something she hasn't felt in a long, long time. No, the situation isn't ideal but she's used to that. The movie isn't saying you should go out and commit some adulterous act if you think it'll help you feel better. What it's saying is that happiness is not always where you expect to find it, and that our lives can often change for the better in ways in which we'd never imagine.

A good example of this is Shelly's excellent portrayal of Dawn. She's plain-looking and simple, a down-home girl with damaged self-esteem. She started been doing what she calls "5-minute dates," so that if the guy turns out to be a dud, she doesn't waste a whole evening. "Have fun on your 5-minute date!" Becky chirps. "Be sure to use a 5-minute condom!" One dud she meets is named Ogie (Eddie Jemison, from all those Ocean movies), a sweet and less-than-average-looking man who has one thing going for him: endless enthusiasm. Ever-smiling, he shows up at the diner the day after their first date, insisting Dawn is the love of his life and he will never relent in his pursuit of her. He tells her he will never stop pursuing her until they are married. Sure enough, he eventually wins her over. Their romance is a sunny contrast to the love-gone-wrong that exists in Jenna and Earl's home, a reminder that happiness is out there somewhere.

I gotta hand it to Fillion, best known for his roles in Joss Whedon's sci-fi/western "Firefly" and the film it spawned, "Serenity," he's at his best when playing characters who are mildly befuddled, as Dr. Pomatter is. His rugged good looks make you think he'll be suave and confident, and then his delivery reveals uncertain hilarity. Many of this film's funniest moments are the result of his interaction with Russell. As for Russell, if you don't already think she's a fine actress, you will absolutely fall in love with her in this film.

Nathan Fillion and Keri Russell in Fox Searchlight's Waitress

Some of Russell's best scenes are with veteran actor Andy Griffith, who plays the owner of the diner, Old Joe. He comes across as a cantankerous old coot who uses his grumpiness to hide his soft heart. He likes to sit in his favorite booth, eat his favorite pies, complain and can only be served by Jenna. It helps that I already love Griffith cuz I grew up watching re-runs of his classic Mayberry show but he proves here that even at 80 years old, he can still do something surprising. Here's a character that could easily be a cliche....that curmudgeon old fart who offers sage advice but instead he's engagingly colorful and nuanced.

Now we wouldn't care about Jenna's situation one bit if not for the role that Sisto has to play as lousy Earl. I can't tell ya how many times I just wanted to hit him or wish someone had. Sure, it would be easy to stereotype him as the no-good husband yet if too much is done in an attempt to humanize him you deny the audience the satisfaction of watching a bad guy get his due. Then if you make him too one-dimensional, you lose the realism. It's the combination of Shelly's stellar script and Sisto's performance that strike a delicate ans successful balance between the two. We catch enough details about his insecurities to see him as a plausible character, but certainly not so much that he we feel for him. We believe him and we hate him and we still wanna hit him which is something that's quite rare.

From a storytelling perspective, Shelly has kinda painted herself into a corner with the relationship of Jenna and her doctor. We want them to wind up together, but can't see how that can happen without ruining lives. It's obvious she's married to a jerk but that doesn't justify her actions, not to mention how it would effect Pommater's seldom-seen wife. I wondered how she even hooked up with Earl but that seemed irrelevant. In the end, the believable outcomes don't seem very plausible and all the plausible outcomes don't seem very believable.

This is one of three movies out this year that dealt with unplanned pregnancies in a real, intelligent and humorous way. With such complicated characters to juggle it's a joy to see Shelly pull it off. The ending is both realistic and happy yet bittersweet cuz as I watched Jenna and her daughter (played by Shelly's actual daughter) I kept on thinking of how this cute lil girl's mother and the actress I just enjoyed watching was murdered. Like Jenna, I was ready for this story to not end well, it would only be natural for that to happen. When it does end happily it comes with a somewhat predictable surprise but that doesn't matter cuz defeat had been so close, which makes victory that much sweeter. I wasn't too surprised that I enjoyed this movie, I just had no idea how good it would go down. What a tasty and tart treat this lovable movie turned out to be. Heh.

Special Features:

You'l be hungry for extras after watching this film and there's plenty on the menu here. I devoured all the features here except for the commentary with Russell and producer Michael Roiff and enjoyed them all. I was glad to see a combination of standard featurettes along with a few memorials for Shelly.

"This Is How We Made Waitress Pie" is a standard making-of featurette. It was fun seeing everyone hanging out on the set. I was so taken with the actors in their roles that it was good to see more of them. Then there's the short "Written and Directed by Adrienne Shelly: A Memorial", a touching look at the writer/actor/director's work on the set. "Hi! I'm Keri, And I'll Be Your Waitress" is a feature solely on Russell-centric featurette (duh) and then there's the humorous "The Pies Have It!" a fun short feature where cast members describe their favorite pies. There's also a trio of Fox Movie Channel promos -- "In Character With" -- are included: Keri Russell ; Cheryl Hines and Nathan Fillion. I only watched the ones with Russell and Fillion, nothing new there but it's great to see how much enthusiasm they had for the script, Shelly and their roles. 47-second promo for the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, featuring remarks from Russell, completes the disc. I woulda been nice to see a Blooper Reel cuz those can be so much fun, especially with any diner hilarity.

Waitress (2007) theatrical

The Skinny:

  • The toddler who plays Lulu, Jenna's daughter in the movie's final scenes is Shelley's actual daughter, Sophie Ostroy.
  • Writer-director-actress Shelly wrote the screenplay while she was pregnant with her daughter, Sophie.
  • Had a 20-day shoot.
  • Release prints were delivered to theaters with the fake title 'Broken Dishes'.
  • At about 5:45 p.m on November 1, 2006, Shelly's husband found her hanging by a bedsheet from a shower rod in the bathtub of an Abingdon Square apartment in the West Village section of Manhattan's Greenwich Village, in what at first appeared to be a suicide. Shelly, who lived in Tribeca, used the apartment as an office. Her husband Andrew Ostroy had dropped her off at 9:30 a.m. that day, and as the building's doorman told journalists, "He hadn't heard from her and he said it was odd not to hear from her, so he was nervous. And he asked me to go up to the apartment with him, so we went to the front door, and it was unlocked".
    An autopsy was performed the following day. The New York City Police Department was suspicious of sneaker prints in the bathtub that did not match Shelly's shoes (she was found wearing only socks). Shelly's husband also indicated that there was money missing from Shelly's wallet. He vigorously denied allegations that she could have committed suicide. Press reports on November 6, 2006 stated that police had arrested construction worker Diego Pillco, a 19-year-old illegal immigrant who confessed to killing Shelly after she complained about the noise he was making in the apartment below hers. Pillco said that he "was having a bad day." Police said Pillco had made videos implicating himself in the murder, and as of November 7, 2006 was being held without bail for her murder.
  • Following his wife's death, Ostroy established the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, a non-profit organization that will award film school scholarships and grants to women filmmakers.
  • On 16 February 2007, the NBC crime drama series Law & Order broadcast an episode, "Melting Pot", that was a thinly-veiled dramatization of Shelly's murder. Shelly herself had guest-starred on the show in the 2000 episode "High & Low".
  • Ironically, Jeremy Sisto (who plays Jenna's loser husband Earl) is now a regular cast member on the 18th season of Law & Order

Interview with Nathan Fillion

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