Saturday, February 09, 2008

Why Waitress is short of a good tip

Before I go out and trash a widely loved movie, I want to clarify three things that might have jaundiced my point of view.

One, outside of those with fresh cut fruits in them, I'm not a lover of pies. Second, I haven't spent a significant amount of time in Smalltown, USA which limits my ability to connect with characters written with that mahol in mind. And thirdly, I'm not a woman.

With that out of the way, I found Adrienne Shelley's writing in the acclaimed Waitress to be wonderful. It was her turn as a director that I thought put the brakes on the movie.

For those of you not familiar with the tragic story sorrounding Shelley, I'll summarize: On November 1, 2006 (well before Waitress was first previewed for audiences in Sundance), her husband Andrew Ostroy returned home to his Manhattan apartment to find Shelley dead of an apparent suicide in her bathtub, hanging from the shower rod.

A dramatic investigation led to a startling arrest - Shelley was said to have yelled at 19-year-old construction worker Diego Pillco who had been making a bit of a ruckus in his apartment below Shelley's. Pillco came over, there was an altercation with Shelley which resulted in her possible death. In a state of panic, Pillco then tried to make it look like a suicide. (More on Pillco's confession). But Pillco's sneakers caught the dampness in the bathroom and left marks - which led the police to not take the staged suicide at face value.

So back to the movie, Shelley had a reasonably good story on her hands and despite trying to cover a little too much sisterhood ground, she came up with a sparkling script. Sure all the men are either jerks, caricatures or wimpy losers in her story - but to be fair she layers her women with flaws. And she adds the right amounts of bittersweet humor to the proceedings.

Jenna (Keri Russell) is a woman who creates magical pies for a diner off the highway. She has fallen out of love with her husband (Jeremy Sisto) and plans to walk out of her marriage. The diner is inhabited by her two friendly coworkers - Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Shelley herself playing a fine hand) and a rude, demanding manager. Life gets complicated when Jenna finds herself pregnant. Having decided to keep her baby and finding her life barreling out of control, she then ignites an affair with her gynecologist Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion).

Even accounting for the fact that Shelley may have deliberately staged Waitress with slapdash indie-chic, the execution of numerous scenes reveal a lack of feel for beat. I'm not even going to complain about the sets or the distractions caused by simple issues - like filters that make dusk and dawn look really fake, or neonish blue lights to portray a night scene or someone forgetting to stop shining the light on Russell's neck in a bus stop scene in bright daylight.

Scenes waft by in which the actors do multiple things without any attempt to pace anything. Vacuous interactions waft by draining the movie of much of its emotional impact. Even the Like Water for Chocolate-inspired pie-scenes in the movie failed to charm me - as they were meant to.

Besides being frustratingly uneven, I thought Waitress suffered from utter lack of chemistry between its two - individually charming - leads Russell and Fillion. If Russell had been more seasoned an actress I wouldn't have had a WTF moment when she begins her affair. Neither does Fillion give us any insights as to why he might be cheating on his wife.

Romances without rhyme or reason are one of the primary reasons I write movies off. As I did this one.

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