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DID YOU READ

“Waitress,” “Paris, Je T’aime”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: “Waitress,” Fox Searchlight, 2007, left; Elijah Wood in “Paris, Je T’aime,” First Look International, 2007, below]

Waitress

The people in Adrienne Shelly’s “Waitress” begin as caricatures and ends as characters. They introduce themselves on phony looking sets with Southern slang that’s all “What can I get ya, hun?”s and “Have a good time, y’hear!”s. But their obviously constructed surroundings contain — and in some ways mask — the characters’ humanity, humor and decency, at least until Shelly’s screenplay slow-draws it out with wit and charm and a kind of patience that feels as old-fashioned as the story’s setting.

Keri Russell plays Shelly’s titular heroine (Shelly herself is in a smaller role), a small town diner pastry chef and waitress named Jenna. Jenna’s depressed, and not only because she’s got two jobs (whoever heard of a chef having to serve her own food?); she’s stuck in an unhappy marriage to Earl (Jeremy Sisto) and just learned there’s an unwanted child on the way. She seems fated to endless misery until her baby puts her in front of the new gynecologist in town, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), a hunky and nervous fellow who strikes up an immediate friendship with the unhappy Jenna.

Jenna’s pie diner and the whole bucolic community in which it sits feel at first like a joke at the expense of small town America, but the film reveals itself to be something more: part idealized portrait, part warm-hearted satire. Shelly’s intentions become infinitely clearer when Andy Griffith appears on screen as Joe, the diner’s owner and most cantankerous customer. Griffith, of course, is famous for playing Sheriff Andy Taylor for eight seasons on “The Andy Griffith Show,” and, as a result, for defining the essence, real or imagined, of small town America. Casting him as the town’s crabby patriarch and infinitely wise arbiter is as crucial to Shelly’s imagery as apple pies and American flags, and it lets Griffith draw upon the audience’s memories of his pop culture past even as he plays with them a little (Joe’s mouth is dirtier than TV Andy’s ever was).

Like most of the characters in “Waitress,” Joe seems like one thing and reveals himself as another. This is not a particularly bold or original technique, especially in a movie about idyllic communities in the American heartland. Still, the richness of some characters stands apart from the well-worn storytelling techniques. Earl, for example, looks at first to be just another suffocating husband, but Shelly and Sisto bring something deeper and sadder to the role. The more we see of Earl, the more we realize that he is just as trapped in the marriage as Jenna, if only by his own suffocating desire to be needed and to feel loved. When he learns Jenna is pregnant, he’s fearful not that he won’t be able to handle his responsibilities as a father, but that Jenna might love the baby more than him.

You don’t necessarily grow to like Earl (he is, after all, a pathetic bastard), but you do grow to like the moments when he’s onscreen because of the enjoyably awkward tension he has with Jenna. Sisto and Russell have terrific negative chemistry, particularly in one hilarious scene where they have very bad sex. Observe the way he talks to his wife; peppering their conversations with detailed instructions on how she is to respond to him (“Tell me you love me… tell me it will be all right.”). It’s as if he sees his life as a movie — he’s the director obsessed with his material and she is the actress who’s dared to improvise the dialogue.

I’ve said a lot about how smart the movie is even in the face of its seeming plasticity, and it is, but I’ve also neglected how simple the story is on another level: sweet and funny, and, in Jenna’s relationship with Dr. Pomatter, romantic and even a little sexy. Given that Shelly died tragically shortly after completing the project, I went in with the incorrect expectation that “Waitress” would be somehow dark or sad. It is neither, except when one stops to reflect on how charming the film is and how its director will never be able to make another one like it.

Paris, Je T’aime

Most short films are just okay. They’re just not long enough to be particularly deep, or moving, or whatever. By their nature, they are slight and somewhat insignificant. Unless you’re a connoisseur of shorts, you could spend your whole life going to the movies and never seeing any. They exist in this world mainly as calling cards for young filmmakers. Instead of handing prospective financiers resumes, they hand them the short film they’ve made.

As a collection of eighteen shorts about the city of Paris (one for each of its neighborhoods), “Paris Je T’aime” is only as good as its component parts, which is to say it is, at least half the time, just okay — not long enough to be particularly deep, or moving, or whatever.

That doesn’t mean that some of its parts don’t do more than that. There are a few clear standouts, including the final short, “14eme Arrondissement,” by Alexander Payne, about a lonely American tourist. It’s like one of Payne’s features in miniature, only 6 minutes long but just as funny and moving as a full-length film. “Quartier de la Madeleine,” a twisted love story about a vampire and her prey (played by Elijah Wood, who once again makes good acting amongst effects work seem so effortless), is darkly stylized by Vincenzo Natali, where most of its brethren are light and shot like documentaries. Alfonso Cuarón’s “Parc Monceau,” in which an older man (Nick Nolte) and a younger woman (Ludivine Sagnier) discuss the man who has come between them, continues the director’s recent love affair with the long take from his last feature, “Children of Men.”

Others don’t stand out, and others tend to fade together in memory. Some, like Olivier Assayas’ “Quartier Des Enfants Rouges” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as an American actress shooting a film on location, aren’t particularly Parisian and could probably have been set anywhere. Others, like Gus Van Sant’s “Le Marais,” about an intimate moment between two men in a printer’s shop, are basically an elaborate set up for a joke. Sometimes you can feel the filmmakers straining against the short format: the Coen Brothers’ “Tuileries,” for instance, would work a lot better in the middle of a movie about Steve Buscemi’s character (a terrified tourist learning about French subway etiquette the hard way), rather in the middle of a movie about 18 different groups of people.

If we don’t feel that we know or understand a character, their predicament, no matter how smartly constructed or adeptly filmed, won’t have an emotional impact. And in six minutes, it is not easy to make an audience feel like they know or understand a character; in some cases, it helps to start with a movie star in a role, as their preexisting relationship with the viewer can work as shorthand, as it does in Richard LaGravenese’ romantic “Pigalle” starring Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant.

“Paris, Je T’aime” shows that short films are usually just okay because they’re quite difficult to do well. Here is a collection of some of the best filmmakers in the world; many have made classics, if not masterpieces. If they can’t pull off a really great six-minute film, how can we expect some young turk from USC to do it?

“Waitress” opens in limited release May 2nd (official site); “Paris, Je T’aime” opens in New York on May 4th (official site).

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.