Waiting tables is unfortunately a big part of my life right now. So when a movie with a name like “Waitress” is released, I’m bound to take notice. The movie’s title is a bit misleading; it isn’t really about waiting tables, it instead focuses on the personal struggles of a woman who happens to be a waitress. The waitressing job functions as a narrative frame through which much of this story is told – kind of like those sports movies that aren’t really about sports, but rather about the “enduring nature of the human spirit,” or some such. While this film is humorous at times, I think it’s less of a comedy than it is a drama with comedic elements. The humor is subtle and on the dry side, and I found the overall tone rather depressing. Also, I think I can safely classify this as somewhat of a “chick flick” based on its focus on a female protagonist’s relationship problems. This is not to say that men can’t enjoy the film too, as long as the men in question don’t go into the theater expecting something like the 2005 film “Waiting…”
As an independent film, Waitress has a very different feel than the Hollywood blockbusters that most of us are used to seeing. Everything is kind of quiet and low-key, and it was actually kind of refreshing not to see a crew of self-important, big-name actors hamming it up on the screen amid over-the-top special effects. Most of the actors in the film have prior television experience, but the only person I recognized was Andy Griffith, who did an excellent job playing the crotchety (but ultimately likeable) old owner of the diner. In researching some of the people involved with this film, I was saddened to learn that Adrienne Shelley, who wrote, directed, and played a supporting role in Waitress was murdered in the apartment she used as her office after completing the film.
Without revealing too much, Waitress stars Kerri Russell as Jenna, a waitress living somewhere in the south, working at a diner that specializes in all sorts of pies. Very early in the film, Jenna learns that she is pregnant. This does not come as pleasant news, because she is very unhappily married to an absolute shit of a human being named Earl, whom she dreams of leaving. Things are further complicated when Jenna has an affair with her new obstetrician, who is also married. Herein lies the main conflict of the film, though there are other subplots involving the romantic misadventures of Jenna’s coworkers.
The relationship between Jenna and her husband Earl is incredibly disturbing, and worthy of a closer examination. Earl is pretty much a stereotypical, chauvinistic redneck, who exercises complete dominance over his wife. He doesn’t let Jenna drive. He collects all of her money every day, and doesn’t let her have finances of her own. He is verbally, and sometimes physically abusive to Jenna. He forces himself on her sexually when she’s not at all interested (because she hates him). And, perhaps most frighteningly, there are scenes where he actually commands her to say the things that he wants to hear and seems convinced as she repeats them back, as with Orwell’s concept of “doublethink.” It becomes pretty obvious that Earl is behaving this way because he is excessively insecure, as evinced by a scene where he makes Jenna promise not to love their unborn baby “too much,” i.e. more than she supposedly loves him. The fact that Jenna puts up with this for so much of the film makes it really uncomfortable to watch; it’s sad to think that this is often the norm for real life abusive relationships.
Many of the characters in the film displayed a shocking degree of apathy, which I found to be pretty damn depressing. While Jenna did make an attempt to escape her husband’s foul clutches, I found myself wondering what took her so long, and why she put up with him with such resignation before and after, and I couldn’t believe that she really had “nowhere to go.” Similarly, one of Jenna’s co-workers (played by Adrienne Shelley) ended up married to a really dopey guy who was essentially stalking her. She seemed to settle for him over time, citing that no one else wanted to be with her. The film presents us with no less than four marriages in which one of the partners is cheating; and none of the adulterers seem to want to leave their spouses for someone that they would probably be happier with. To each their own, I suppose, but I squirmed a little when watching the film. It’s like that scene in a horror movie where the teenager goes outside to investigate the noise, and you want to shout, “Don’t do it, you fool!”
It is interesting to note how the film makes symbolic use of pie imagery. Visualizing and obsessing over pies serves as a form of escapism for Jenna. When dreaming up new pie creations, Jenna stares off into space with a vapid expression, and seems able to temporarily “tune out” her unpleasant surroundings. The film features time-lapse videos of pies being made. These segments come to serve as metaphors for the conditions in Jenna’s life; as her stress level increases, the viewer sees rather unpleasant pie concoctions being smashed, lit on fire, etc. The act of baking itself seems to remind Jenna of her deceased mother, thus linking her with a comparatively happier past. It also provides her one ray of hope for the future: a fantasy of winning a large cash prize at a baking contest – enough to give her a new start and possibly open her own bakery someday.
Overall, I found Waitress to be thought provoking, but kind of slow-paced, and kind of a downer. The film offers a cast of quirky characters that are well-acted. It occurred to me that the actor playing Earl did his job admirably in making me hate the character as much as I did – unless, heaven forbid, the guy is actually like that in real life. The characters interact well together in creating believable (and often disquieting) tension. But when the film was over, I felt like I’d been duped; I was hoping for a funny film about the waiting profession that I could relate to as a server, and instead I ended up seeing a personal drama whose comedic style was a bit too dry and subtle for my taste.