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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March 7, 2013

Robot and Frank

Frank Langella and the voice of Peter Sarsgaard as his personal robot make  for a most unlikely criminal duo in this compact caper movie set in the quite  near future.

01 (27)

Frank Langella plays Frank (how that naming decision must have taxed the  makers), a retired cat-burglar shambling forgetfully around a small town in  upstate New York. Concerned that Frank’s visits to a long closed restaurant for  his meals are getting too frequent his son Hunter (James Marsden) foists upon  him a personal robot (Peter Sarsgaard) programmed to attend to his healthcare  needs. Robot will cook Frank proper meals at regular intervals, harass him into  taking his medicines when he should, and force him to start gardening to sharpen  his memory skills. Frank pleads with his technophobic daughter Madison (Liv  Tyler) to get rid of the android, until he realises that Robot can be cajoled  into breaking locks. And his beloved local library just happens to have  something worth stealing for librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) before the  books are shipped out…

Robot and Frank is a deeply odd  movie. It is at heart a caper flick. And like all capers there’s a lot of fun to  be had in preparing for the heist, plotting it out, dealing with the unforeseen  disasters that occur, and playing bluff with the long arm of the law. Jeremy  Strong is sensationally obnoxious as the patronising yuppie Jake, intent on  replacing the library with a hipster hangout because printed material is  obsolete. Jeremy Sisto is also good value as the sheriff who half suspects Frank  is up to his old tricks, but mostly is just harassing him to placate the rich  Jake. Peter Sarsgaard is obviously enjoying himself as the robot given to  ineffectually shouting “Warning –do not molest me!” at strangers who poke at  him, but this movie is really all about Langella’s disquieting lead.

Can you address a topic as serious as dementia in the middle of an amusing  crime caper? I don’t think so. Frank’s memory noticeably improves as he plots  his heist with Robot, but that feels a bit off. This is a future with technology  not too far advanced from ours, bar the (child in a space-suit) titular robot,  but the sci-fi leaves little trace on your memory compared to how a casual line  of dialogue turns out to have a devastating relevance later. As the children  dealing with their ailing father Marsden is thoroughly underused and made  needlessly unsympathetic, while Tyler is given more screen-time but her  character’s motivations are not probed as searchingly they cried out to be.  Sarandon brings far more charm to this role than last week’s Arbitrage, but this part is even more of a  cipher.

Robot and Frank is amusing, but it  feels like a film about dementia had a sci-fi heist written around it to secure  it financing.

3/5

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