Saturday, June 16, 2007

Small Towns and Big Surprises; Adrienne Shelley's "Waitress"

Most of the writing about director Adrienne Shelley's latest, and last, film, "Waitress," has been at least as much about her murder last fall in her West Village office shortly after its completion, as about the work itself. Given that Shelley went to all the trouble of writing, directing, and even acting in "Waitress," it's seemed to me pretty grotesquely unfair that her death has not only deprived her, and her audience, of another thirty or forty years of productive life, but is also going a long way towards preventing us from viewing her last film through clear eyes. So I wanted to wait a little while to see "Waitress," to give myself a better chance to see it on its own terms, in the context of Shelley's quirky and distinguished body of work, rather than through the long shadow cast by her death.

Shelley began her film career in the early nineties, starring in a pair of indie favorites, written and directed by Hal Hartley, "Trust," and "The Unbelievable Truth." Even in these, his first two films, Hartley was already working with what would become his signature, off kilter style. His tales of people on the edge always feel as though they're occurring within a slightly alternate universe. One very like our own, but just a little chillier, and operating under its own unique rules of logic. Characters in Hal Hartley's movies don't act quite like you or I would, they act like, well, characters in Hal Hartley movies, there's really just no other way of putting it. They talk a lot, and think a lot, and are forever on the brink of something undefined, and are prone to self destructive, sudden decisions, that rarely have quite the consequences they would here, in this reality you and I inhabit. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. When Shelley was onscreen though, Hartley was able to rely on her slight, but commanding presence, the warmth she brought to her performances, and her frizzy haired, otherworldly looks, to pull his pieces together into something tightly bound. As Maria, the pregnant cheerleader at the heart of Trust, for instance, Shelley provided the center of gravity through whom the audience could enter the film's cracked world, and around whom the other characters could all twist and turn. In her absence, Hartley's emphasis on style over substance has often been more glaring, and his tendency towards the cerebral over the soulful more apparent.

By the late nineties, Shelley had shifted her focus from acting to writing and directing films of her own. Her first two features, 1997's, "Sudden Manhattan," and 1999's, "I'll Take You There," both have the feeling of a filmmaker in search of her own voice. "Sudden Manhattan" is the story of Donna, who is trying to be a writer in the West Village, and may or may not be losing her mind, but is unquestionably surrounded by a pack of lunatics. It is very funny, and very loopy, and very much one of those movies people either love or just can't stand. As is "I'll Take You There," in which Ally Sheedy's Lucy has most definitely lost at least a bit of her mind, but gets enough of it back by the end to charm her captive love interest into sticking around, even once he figures out that her gun isn't the slightest bit loaded. These films show an confidence uncommon in a beginning writer and director, as well as Hartley's influence, in their willingness to challenge the audience to take them on their own terms, to join them in their unlikely, temporary, worlds.

"Waitress" undoubtedly benefited from having a higher budget than either of its predecessors. The sets look better, the editing is smoother, the lighting is prettier, all of that certainly helps. But more than that, it's clearly the work of a more practiced writer, and a director whose gained clarity of vision. Watching either "Sudden Manhattan," and "I'll Take You There," felt like being caught up in a whirlwind of sorts. They picked you up, tossed you around, then dropped you off when they were done with you. Watching "Waitress," is a different kind of experience altogether. Slower, sweeter, and much more of a sense that someone is actually in control of everything that's going on.

Unlike Shelley's first two films, no part of "Waitress," takes place anywhere near Manhattan. Instead, it is set in the kind of small town that is nowhere and everywhere all at once. It feels vaguely southern, but really, could be found off just about any exit ramp off any highway. Or rather, it's the kind of small town we'd like to think is waiting for us out there, if we could ever get past all the Wal-Mart's, and the Cost-Cos. It's a fairy tale kind of place, sleepy and pretty, with lots of trees, and a pie diner, where Keri Russell's title character, Jenna works.

Jenna is, of course, a waitress. But more than that, she makes pies. Amazing concoctions of pies, with names like, "Earl Kills Me Because I'm Having An Affair," pie, or "I Don't Want Earl's Baby," pie. The scenes of Jenna alone in the diner's grubby kitchen, making her pies, are gorgeous. She's absorbed in the moment, doing what she loves, spooning out the filling for, perhaps, her "Chocolate Mousse Falling in Love Pie." I had no idea Keri Russell, of "Felicity" fame, could be such a good actress.

Jenna's husband, Earl, is horrible. In every way imaginable, just horrible. Yet, she finds herself pregnant, and not especially happy about it. As she says she, recognizes "this baby's right to thrive," but isn't feeling any motherly love towards it. On the contrary, as her pregnancy progresses, the baby seems more and more like part of the trap that will keep her stuck in her life, with the horrible Earl, forever.

Not that there aren't any bright spots at all in Jenna's life. She's got her two fellow waitresses, played by Cheryl Hines & Adrienne Shelley. Hines and Shelley each gets a good subplot of her own, and the rapport the three women share feels real, in a way that is rarely captured onscreen. They work and play together, bump up against each other's soft spots, and do the best they can for one another, in the end. Friends like that can take a girl a long way, if she's paying attention to what she's got there.

And then there's Jenna's doctor. Dr. Pomatter. He's new in town, and married, and somehow or other, becomes Jenna's boyfriend, horrible, jealous husband, notwithstanding. As Jenna says, in a long letter to her unborn, unwanted baby, who she often addresses as, "Damn Baby," their affair is all about the sex in the beginning, but then shifts into something else, when she starts really talking to him, and finds herself "addicted to saying things and having them matter."

There's old Joe too, played by Andy Griffith, the cranky owner of the diner where Jenna works. Nobody likes old Joe but Jenna, and, in this fairy tale of a film, he turns out to be a most unlikely fairy godfather of sorts.

It won't come as much of a surprise to anyone to hear that, as much as Jenna dislikes her baby throughout her pregnancy, referring to it as an alien, a parasite, and, of course, "Damn Baby," the minute the baby is born, and in her arms, she falls head over heels in love with her. Is, in fact, completely undone by how much she loves the little parasite, once she's looking at her. The biggest surprise to me about Waitress was just how good Keri Russell is in it. I couldn't bear "Felicity," and didn't expect to like her in anything ever. But I have to admit, she's great here. Her Jenna grounds the film's whimsy, serves up suffering and elation in equal measure, and gives Shelley's fairy tale world just the dash of realism it needs to work.

Of course, now that I've seen "Waitress," and know just how much I like it, I can't help thinking about the fact that it's the last film we'll have from Adrienne Shelley. She has left me wanting much, much, more, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

No comments: