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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January 23, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coens return with their worst film since their mainstream disasters Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, and this time round they can’t say their vision was distorted by mainstream pressures.

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Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) performs a folksong at the Gaslight Cafe in 1961. Walking backstage he’s punched in the face, an unwelcome reminder of the Coens’ Gambit script. The effectively homeless Llewyn wakes up on the Gorfeins’ couch and leaves their flat in accidental possession of their cat. His next planned couch, that of occasional lover Jean (Carey Mulligan), has been promised to earnest GI singer Troy (Stark Sands). Worse still Jean is pregnant and, unsure of the paternity, wants to abort the baby. The needful money comes from Jean’s boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake) inviting Llewyn to join Al Cody (Adam Driver) as a session player on Jim’s novelty song ‘Please Mr Kennedy’. After Llewyn alienates everybody he knows he is reduced to sharing a car to Chicago with rude jazzman Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his valet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), in a quest to impress Chicagoan music impresario (F Murray Abraham). Can Llewyn finally get his voice heard?

You won’t care… Even if you’re still conscious after the tedium of the tedious road-trip, you won’t care because Llewyn is comprehensively as obnoxious a protagonist as you have ever seen. He’s an abrasive, unreasonable, uncaring, and only slightly talented egomaniacal dick. But he’s not compelling as a character, and he’s not even consistent. In a horrific scene he curses the inexplicably hospitable Gorfeins for wanting him to perform after dinner when he’s ‘a professional musician’. A few scenes later he performs to entertain the driving Johnny, even though he’s still ‘a professional musician’. A character this toxic infects everything… The crudity of dialogue is astonishing, and having Llewyn upbraided for his foul mouth doesn’t overcome it. The acting also decays: Mulligan shouts or snaps nearly all of her lines, snapping being one gradation below shouting with her, On the Road’s Hedlund’s appearance seems an unfunny in-joke, because he’s playing a meaner Dean Moriarty, and Goodman is on uncommitted auto-pilot.

I only love two Coen films, the most absurd ones: Raising ArizonaO Brother. I’ve long felt they were over-rated given their taste for crunching violence, blank characters, and a curious air of superiority, but this is a startling nadir. I can’t give you any reason to see Inside Llewyn Davis. Its full performances of minor folksongs can be bettered by throwing on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, a truer sense of that scene can be acquired by reading Dave Van Ronk’s memoir, a more insightful study of a failing artist featuring Adam Driver is Frances Ha, and a more compelling abrasive guy getting into shouting matches stars in Curb Your Enthusiasm. But I also can’t explain Inside Llewyn Davis’ existence. Singers need to perform to an audience, and Llewyn can’t properly connect with audiences, so his unrelenting monstrousness isn’t redeemed personally or artistically. If that’s the point, then… we all encounter enough jerks in life without needing films about them…

The Coen Brothers often give the impression they have a smirking contempt for their cipher characters, but this film shades over into contempt for their adoring audience in addition.

0/5

February 24, 2012

Margaret

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s second film was shot in 2005 and delayed ever since by squabbling over its running time, but it’s only intermittently worth the wait…

Anna Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, a deeply unpleasant privileged NYC teenager whose selfish actions cause Mark Ruffalo’s bus driver to run over a pedestrian. This leads to one of the most traumatic scenes you’ll ever see as Paquin comforts the dying Monica (Allison Janney), whose horrific injury remains just about off-screen. Lonergan wanders off on a Kieran Culkin-heavy tangent about drug-taking and teenage sex, before showcasing Matthew Broderick fighting a student over the correct interpretation of a couplet in King Lear (perilously similar to a scene in The Corrections), and multiple politics classes ending in shouting matches over Israel/Palestine and Iraq. Meanwhile Lisa’s actress mother Joan is nervous about her play transferring to Broadway, and is pursuing a bizarrely scripted romance with Jean Reno. Endless montages of NYC throughout perhaps cue this as a study of post-9/11 hysterical anger.

Lonergan’s celebrated play This Is Our Youth (staged at the Project in 2009 with Charlie Murphy) was an acute portrayal of emotionally abusive male friendships, while his directorial debut You Can Count On Me (2000) was a warm study of sibling camaraderie in the face of diverging lives. Margaret, by contrast, achieves his usual unpredictability only thru utter aimlessness. Focus belatedly arrives when Lisa decides to atone for her own guilt by starting a legal crusade to punish the bus driver for killing Monica. The film becomes draining as Lisa’s increasingly obnoxious/deranged behaviour leads to so many abrasive (and always needlessly escalating) shouting matches that you wish Olivia Thirlby would drop a heavy book on her classmate. If Kenneth Lonergan wanted to write for Curb Your Enthusiasm so bad back in 2005 why didn’t he just ring Larry David and ask?

There is much to admire in Margaret. Lonergan’s theatrical dialogue is as potently witty and expressive as ever and produces many crackling sequences, not least some stunningly astringent scenes between despairing mother and monstrous daughter. It’s great fun spotting pre-fame Rosemarie DeWitt as Ruffalo’s wife and pre-Juno Thirlby as the voice of reason in the strident politics class. Lonergan even gives himself a droll supporting role as Lisa’s absent father. The title comes from a Hopkins couplet, “It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for”, but if Lonergan was attempting to make some Donnean point about how the senseless death of one person affects us all, he just leaves the audience as confused as cameoing Matt Damon’s consistently perplexed looking teacher.

Margaret runs for 2 hours and 30 minutes. I have no idea what point Lonergan is trying to make in that time. And I think the studio, which insisted Margaret be cut from 3 hours, didn’t believe he’d any idea either…

3/5

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