Saturday, March 7, 2009

Waitress (2007)

The movie was charming, but full of moments, rather than movement.

In the lead role Keri Russell is luminescent, in a way that transcends her character Jenna's circumstances. Yes, Jenna is from a small town, but her sense of self-awareness is so keen that it's hard to imagine how she got where she is.

Apparently, Jenna's greatest evolution took place before we meet her. We learn almost immediately that she despises her husband, conveniently named Earl, as that moniker has become shorthand for "ignorant lowlife." Witness the NBC comedy My Name is Earl. Indeed, this particular Earl could also have been the title character in the Dixie Chicks' infamous dirge Goodbye Earl. Earl is demanding, dimwitted and self-centered on a good day and violent on occasion. In fact, the character vacillates between humorous and disturbing in a way that leaves the viewer teetering. So much of the movie seems to be fable that when Earl threatens Jenna in a very real way, it's hard to process. It's as if Goldilocks had suddenly been mauled by one of the three, whimsical bears.

We're introduced to Jenna at work, a dinerwhere she bakes delectable pies that express her emotion and possess magnetic appeal to the customers she serves. To partake of Jenna's pie is to dissect a slice of life that would otherwise elude one. While her customers and fellow waitresses realize this, Jenna's gruff boss is indifferent to her culinary skills and comports himself as a less oppressive version of Earl.

Jenna stands out in the small diner where she works, as someone wiser than her years, sharper than her peers. So much so that it doesn't seem realistic that she's there. Such cream would rise to the top. Even if born poor and hopeless, Jenna doesn't seem like the type of person who would remain that way.

Certainly, there are many high school girls who fall for the captain of the football team and marry him before discovering he is a lout, but Jenna doesn't seem like the type who would have been drawn to such a man in the first place, not even as a teen. Surely, she would have been dazzled by the nerd in wood shop class, the dreamy boy who painted, the lead in the school play, not Earl. She would have caught a teacher's eye and been chosen for a grant or apprenticeship. Perhaps, she would never have left her small town, but she would easily have risen to its highest ranks. Of course, ultimately she does reach them, but the movie's problem is we don't see her rise. Rather, she magically alights, in a sudden manner that teaches both Jenna and the audience nothing.

We learn that Jenna has been saving her tip money to plot an escape from the controlling Earl. She plans to leave him, enter a nearby pie-baking contest, win, and then build an independent life for herself. Her plans are side-tracked by an unexpected pregnancy. Upon seeking prenatal care, she meets a new doctor and is promptly attracted to him. They soon begin a bumbling affair. These events, though enlightening for Jenna, combine to make her more imprisoned than ever. When she fumbles to hide the affair from Earl, he discovers both her pregnancy and the cash she'd stashed away. Enraged he tightens his grip on her, both literally and figuratively. Rather than breaking away, Jenna is given a "get out of jail free" card.

One of Jenna's customers is "Old Joe," a character who resonates more than his screen time merits, due to the fact that he's played by the familiar Andy Griffith, whose very visage strikes an immediate rapport with the audience. Jenna is not particularly nice to Joe. In fact, the best that can be said of her attitude is that she doesn't mind waiting on him. Ever observant, Joe gives her unsolicited advice, keeps her secrets and tells her his stories, but it's not a reciprocal relationship. She doesn't give him anything in return. If he develops an affection for her, she hasn't particularly earned it.

Meanwhile, though she never considers ending her pregnancy, Jenna frankly admits to her lover (and her diary) that she is unexcited about the prospect of motherhood. The baby's advent has made her more a victim than ever. She sees the child as bringing no good for her and she feels she has nothing of value to give it. Her feelings don't change until minutes after the child's birth. When she draws the infant to her, she is suddenly consumed by a love so fierce that she immediately finds the strength to challenge Earl that she'd been lacking for years. When she turns on him, we see that Earl knows as well as we do that Jenna was always the superior one. His only power came from the fact that she did not know it. Maternity opened her eyes, but it happened in an instant. A movie is supposed to be a journey, not a second's revelation.

Minutes after tossing Earl on his ear, Jenna also learns that "Old Joe" has died, leaving her his fortune. Suddenly, she's wealthy and has the wherewithal to survive without Earl or her waitressing job. Dumping her married lover, she buys her own diner and bakes happily ever after. While I don't begrudge the charming Jenna this idyllic ending, I can't help wondering what would have happened if "Old Joe" hadn't died. If her story was a fable (and the vibrant colors that surround Jenna and her infant daughter as the movie closes confirm it's a fairy tale) then it's magic is permitted, as long as it teaches us something. There's little to learn from Jenna's story. She didn't prevail due to goodness, faith,or ingenuity. Instead, a generous customer saved the day, leaving money to her, as his "only friend." But that bequest just revealed the depth of emptiness in Joe's life. I think he did more to fill his own void than Jenna ever did hers.

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