Thursday, August 14, 2008

MOVIES: Waitress

In my continuing effort to catch up with the many great films I missed in 2007, I watched Waitress last night. I actually bought the DVD prior to seeing it; I got a $15 Blockbuster gift card for my birthday, and I used it toward a 4-for-$20 used DVD special. The other three DVDs: Sicko, Gone Baby Gone, and Eastern Promises, also all from 2007. See, it's a continuing effort!

Waitress stars Keri Russell as a small-town waitress stuck in a loveless marriage whose only creative escape is through the magnificent pies she bakes (with names such as "I Hate My Husband Pie"). Her actual, physical escape plans are foiled when she discovers she's pregnant, and a deep resentment for the baby grows within her. While figuring how she's going to deal with her rotten husband and unwanted baby, she falls into an affair with her married OB-GYN, played with good-humored charm by Nathan Fillion.

The beauty of the film lies in its characters, and their specificity. We've seen any number of bad husbands in the movies, but none quite like Jeremy Sisto, who is a callous bully, but who also displays unexpected vulnerability, as when he dissolves into frightened tears when he discovers his wife has been hiding money from him. And we've seen any number of wronged wives, but watching Russell wend her way from motivated to flee, to loathing for her unborn child, to resigned despair, to beaming elation as her affair with Fillion blooms, to shame and fear that she'll be caught (as she invents her "I Can't Have No Affair Because It's Wrong And I Don't Want Earl To Kill Me Pie"), to final steely determination and direction -- it all feels fresh and new, especially as seen through Russell's bright, sharp eyes.

The supporting characters often border on too quirky for their own good, as with Andy Griffith's crusty old curmudgeon with a randy mind and a heart of gold, or Eddie Jemison as Ogie, the creepily persistent suitor who recites impromptu poetry. But others are pure gems, as with Fillion's kind, romantic doctor, or Adrienne Shelly as the mousy waitress who hasn't given up on happiness.

The movie is mainly concerned with that search for happiness, but there's a deep current of sadness running through it as well. It's a funny film, but Russell's pain is very real. Much of the sadness is also informed by the fate of Shelly, who wrote and directed the film, her first feature. She was murdered in her New York apartment before the film was released to overwhelmingly positive reviews (89% positive, according to Rotten Tomatoes). It's a true tragedy, and one that lays a shadow over the film, but in no way does that make it a film to avoid. This is a sweet, touching, original work with enormous, widespread appeal.


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