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