Talking Movies

August 7, 2019

From the Archives: Waitress

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers a sleeper hit indie film about a pregnant waitress having an affair that was a very odd mix of comedy and drama, definitely more sour than sweet…

Waitress is a low budget indie film that was an audience favourite at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and has since been a sizeable sleeper hit at the US Box Office. Tis a comic tale of a pregnant unhappily married waitress who begins an affair with her charming gynaecologist while dreaming of winning a pie-baking contest…  It’s important to know these facts so that you can disregard them because Waitress is actually a distinctly unsettling clash of comedy and drama. Adrienne Shelley assembled a terrific cast of cult TV stars for her debut film as a writer/director. Keri Russell (Felicity and Mission: Impossible 3), Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm), and Shelley herself play the three waitresses at Joe’s Diner where most of the action takes place. Nathan Fillion (Buffy and Firefly) and Andy Griffith (Matlock) round out the cast of familiar faces from the small screen.

Jenna (Keri Russell) is a waitress who idealises, no make that, romanticises, food out of all proportion. She was taught how to cook by her mother and so each crisis in her life she deals with by her closing her eyes and imaging a new pie she’s going to bake. Much of the film’s comedy comes from these speeded up sequences of her hands piling ingredients into pies with titles like ‘Earl murders me cos I’m having an affair Pie’.  Jenna’s brutish husband Earl is a misogynistic monster whose attitudes aren’t so much 1950s as 1850s, the sneering villain of Victorian melodrama (remember that genre because we’ll come back to it). There are three moments of physical abuse by him in this film that are among the most upsetting things you will see at the cinema this year, all the more so because we have already learned to dread his appearances because of his previous emotional abuse and economic subjugation of his downtrodden wife.

The problem with Waitress is that its enthusiastic reception Stateside has been largely down to the comic side of the film which admittedly features many hilarious turns. Eddie Jemison woos Shelley’s waitress with hilariously bad ‘spontaneous poetry’, Nathan Fillion brings his celebrated comedic deadpan to the role of the nervous gynaecologist Dr Pomatter (who would ordinarily twitch like Woody Allen in the hands of lesser actors) and Andy Griffith joyously resurrects his Matlock persona as Joe, the owner of the diner and an irascible old grouch with a heart of gold. This comedy element sits most awkwardly against the predicament of Jenna’s deeply unhappy marriage and the poverty trap she appears to be stuck in without any hope of escape. The ending then unbelievably resorts to one of the most tired stock cliches of Victorian melodrama in order to solve this script conundrum.

Waitress therefore is hard to recommend enthusiastically, as it is a comedy with many hysterical moments which also features, in Jeremy Sisto’s Earl, one of the most repulsive, because realistic, villains of recent years.

3/5

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October 1, 2014

Life After Beth

Dane DeHaan had never made a comedy before this film. I’m not sure he still hasn’t made a comedy after starring in Life After Beth.

life-after-beth-beth-and-zach

Zach Orfman (DeHaan) is inconsolable with grief after his girlfriend Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) dies from a snakebite while on a solo hike in the hills. Despite the best efforts of his abrasive security guard brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler), and his helicopter parents Judy (Cheryl Hines) and Noah (Paul Reiser), nothing can shake him out of his gloom. Instead he spends his time with Beth’s parents, playing chess and smoking weed with Maury (John C Reilly), and going thru Beth’s clothes with Geenie (Molly Shannon). So far so Moonlight Mile. But when the Slocums’ Haitian maid Pearline (Eva La Dare) flees town, it’s not long before a horde of zombies appears, heralded by a returned Beth – who has no memory of dying, and is now super-strong, insanely jealous of Zach’s reappeared childhood friend Erica (Anna Kendrick), and increasingly hungry…

Warm Bodies approached the conundrum of how you make a romantic comedy with zombies by making the zombies not zombies. Life After Beth keeps the zombies as zombies and instead ditches the romantic comedy aspect. Which can’t be intentional, can it? There are so many good actors onboard that you feel something has gone disastrously wrong. Reiser is more likeable than I’ve ever seen him, and Gubler is fantastically obnoxious. But the lead performances don’t match them. Plaza presumably signed on for eating people and blowing up a lifeguard post, but, while she has fun with the physical shtick, the role mutes her comedic grouchiness. DeHaan’s everyman is ill-served by the puzzling script. What should be deadpan just turns out blank. Reacting blankly to absurd situations does not by itself provide comedy, there does need to be jokes in addition.

Writer/director Jeff Baena co-wrote I Heart Huckabees which makes it all the more baffling what the hell went wrong because he’s not a man short of comedic invention. Technically everyone is at the top of their game. Jay Hunter, who was the DP for Joss Whedon’s crisply monochrome Much Ado About Nothing, bathes this gated community in a sunlight wonderfully inapt for a zombie horror; again displaying flair on a shoestring. Kudos must also go to the casting directors (Nicole Daniels and Courtney Sheinin) who realised that with the right haircut DeHaan and Gubler are perfect as brothers. But technical competence and solid acting can only get you so far. By the end when a gratuitously naked female zombie appears you’re not sure if it’s a ham-fisted nod to Re-Animator, or a stunt to arouse the audience from its slumber.

Life After Beth is a zom-rom-com that’s played so straight that it ends up a romantic drama about a bad break-up and an unstable ex-girlfriend; now with added zombies.

1/5

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