On Nov. 1, 2006, actress and filmmaker Adrienne Shelly was murdered in her New York apartment by a 19-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant, who later confessed to the crime despite the fact that at first, Shelly’s death was ruled a suicide. These are the facts: spare, dispassionate, and incontrovertible. For Shelly’s friends, family, and co-workers, her death was certainly unexpected, and likely unfathomable, leaving a hole in their lives where a passionate, vibrant young woman once stood. And yet, as I did not know her, and had no idea who she even was until her death, I can only approach her as a member of the ticket-buying public. She has made a movie. I have now seen that movie. And because my displeasure was so intense — so coarse and offensive that I trembled, groaned, and even spat like a shellshocked senior citizen at bingo — I must boldly assess her life (and its end) as someone on the wrong end of her artistic ambitions.
At the risk of minimizing my experience, let it be said that I choose now to remain upbeat; granting this tragedy a silver lining that is befitting the finished product. Safely buried — tucked away for an eternal, silent sleep — Adrienne Shelly has thankfully made her last motion picture. She’ll never work again. Her light has gone dark; her inkwell run dry. Having seen fit to express as her last will and testament a film so dreadful, so heinously inept and excruciating that I’m closing my mind even to the possibility that I’ll encounter anything worse all year, Shelly has, unintentionally of course, achieved a perverse nobility in death. By breathing no more, she has secured the only form of respect I’m bound to grant her. I’m still not sure she deserves it.
The film in question, Waitress, is, at this early date, a smash hit, proving once and for all that despite their reputation as elitist snobs who look down their noses at the public’s boorishness, film critics are as sentimental as those they claim to deride. The sots. Actual criticism, of course, is spare as to be wholly absent, and from coast to coast, magazines, newspapers, and websites bemoan the loss of a “genuine talent”; a “unique voice” that had so much yet to say. Richard Nixon’s funeral was the best sign yet that death blunts the critical faculties, reducing survivors to blithering buffoons whose capacity for reinvention and myth is surpassed only by their unwillingness to offend, but this movie’s starry-eyed reception is now rivaling that historic day.
I, however, have no such niceties to offer. Waitress would be a pile of shit had Shelly lived, or merely been raped, or even scorched alive in the World Trade Center’s death rattle. It would still be ludicrous on its face were Shelly’s husband to scream her name from the rooftops, heart defiantly on sleeve. It would remain oversimplified, half-baked, and 107 minutes of hellfire even if Shelly’s young daughter were to cry her little eyes out on Oprah’s stage while a chorus of angels nursed the child through a fitful rest. And it would yet stand as a chick flick the reliably (and easily) amused block of femininity would have cause to reject, even if a flood of letters burst forth testifying to Shelly’s utter perfection as a human being. Rumor has it Shelly’s killer was pushed over the edge by her complaints about construction noise emanating from his abode. Perhaps, but I’d like to think he had no other way to stop her from returning to post-production.
Above all, Waitress inhabits that unreal plane where handsome doctors fall in love with brooding food service workers inside of an office visit, nasty husbands wake up nasty and go to bed nasty with nastiness on their lips, odd ducks marry even odder ducks within the welcoming walls of a diner, and the local grouch — played by no less an icon than Andy Griffith — not only has a heart of gold, but so much money that he’s able to bail out our sweet heroine just in the nick of time, and before he makes that fateful visit to the hospital, of course. It’s the sort of film where all of humanity is reduced to a trait: a strange, stammering fellow who uses “spontaneous poetry” to woo a wallflower, a self-absorbed dimwit who has a pie for all occasions, and often drifts into dreamland with recipes on the brain, and a physician of such strength and dignity that he’s willing to leave his sweet, attractive wife (who is also a doctor) for the sort of woman who cleans up after sweaty truckers for a living. And in case you’re keeping score, there’s also a nasty cook who, when called upon, dispenses the sort of clear-eyed wisdom usually found among Algonquin round tables, not those stained by weak coffee and sausage grease. It’s all so terrifically whimsical; light as a feather, free as a bird, but not so dreamy as to avoid tugging the heartstrings whenever it’s so inclined. And so it is, again and again. There’s a smack to the chops, a childbirth scene, a tearful embrace, and a wedding, and none of it burdened by having taken place on planet Earth.
Ultimately, this is Jenna’s story, and as played by the waxlike Keri Russell, she’s unusually undeserving of the spotlight. There isn’t a single compelling reason we should be spending time with her, though the script finds her so damned adorable that everyone in Christendom sees her as irresistible. Her lone enemy, though, is in the form of her husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto), the sort of man cooked up by a man-hating screenwriter who finally has the stage on which to excoriate each and every lout who has done her wrong before that last, desperate flirtation with humorless lesbianism. Earl is crass and unshaven (all cinematic villains seem to lack a working razor), and his sole trait seems to be a possessiveness so intense that one wonders what she ever saw in him to begin with. Hell, he’s not even good in bed! Needless to say, she is dying to leave the sumbitch, but her poverty and fear keep her in check. Jesus, has she not seen The Burning Bed?
Never fear, dear reader, this is not a cautionary tale of feminine traps or the dilemma of the abused spouse. Hell, this isn’t even on the level of Sleeping With the Enemy. Having few ambitions beyond bathing Jenna in the glowing light of martyrdom, we just hang out while she cries, ponders, sighs, and contorts her mouth into all sorts of contemplative positions. She’s a thinker, this one, though her field of vision begins and ends with the navel so delightfully on display with the advancement of her pregnancy. With child? After being seduced by Earl one drunken evening? Honey, this is the South, and hating the child trapped inside you still ain’t no reason to abort the thing. No, not even when it’s your pappy who done it.
And so Jenna moves from the restaurant to home, the bus stop to the doctor’s office, and she’s so cute that new arrival Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion) can’t wait to see her again, apparently having missed the med school class about not inserting your penis into patients. They always start making out right when Jenna is most insistent about the inappropriateness of the affair, which of course is exactly how real life proceeds. And don’t M.D.s always go a-courtin’ for white trash? Still, her pies are good, and all that baggage couldn’t possibly dissuade a man who has a great career, wife, and bank account to lose. Fine, I’ll grant that the world’s men have done pretty much everything under the sun for new pussy, but if that irrational act is going to be portrayed on screen, at least have some blood coursing through the veins of the participants.
After all, these are card-carrying members of small-town eccentricity, not human beings making complex moral choices. And I know Old Joe (Griffith) just plum has to be the kind of geezer who asks for two glasses of water (no ice!) and a meal so precisely arranged that certain foods are not allowed to touch the plates of others, but must he read an advice column that wouldn’t pass the editor’s desk at Cosmo, let alone a backwater rag in conservative Mississippi? And with the other two waitresses (Shelly is Dawn/Vera, and Cheryl Hines is Becky/Flo) and a decidedly Mel-ish cook, is this really anything more advanced than a particularly bad episode of Alice? Except that here, Alice is leaving to throw up every 10 seconds. I know the feeling.
So if I were to tell you that Jenna starts a diary to her unborn child (which constitutes most of the intolerable narration), at first showing no compassion or love — even resorting to resentment when her escape money is discovered and used to buy a crib — and eventually becoming a love only a mother could ever know, would you express shock and wonder? Women can and do roll their eyes in the face of impending motherhood (those were knowing chuckles, weren’t they, ladies?), but the rules of cinema expressly forbid a sustained loathing. And while some turnarounds can be late in the game, they always come, like comeuppance for the no-good and redemption for the good-hearted. For Jenna, it is labor itself that does the trick, though she must first use the pain to muster sufficient courage to finally tell Earl where to get off. But rather than the long-awaited moment of triumph it believes itself to be, it is but the screeching end of a tired rant, and our only desire is to see the cuckold pull a pistol from his dirty jeans and end the mess right then and there.
But the instant the fiery Jenna sees that sweet little baby, she is transformed. Not only is it the cutest baby in all of creation, it now defines this woman evermore. Her independence had been sought, but it was actually a new kind of dependence that was waiting in the wings. And thank the gods of Mayberry that she won’t have to face it without a pot to piss in. Old Joe’s big check (tucked away in a card he says is “for later,” which is movie-speak for “at the moment a co-worker comes in and breaks the news that I’ve passed on”) is just enough to buy her present place of employment and have it converted into Lulu’s Pies (named after her apple-cheeked daughter), because Americus was already taken by Where the Heart Is. And with that closing shot, the circle is complete. Jenna’s depression — all depression, after all — has but a single cure. Get busy breeding, or get busy dying.