The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by James Zborowski.

Photo from the article It is a convention of literary fiction that the narrator is able to peer inside characters and convey their thoughts and feelings to the reader, as often and as much as suits the author’s purpose. In its much shorter history, the cinema too has developed various ways of expressing what is sometimes called a character’s subjectivity, or interiority. Waitress, which centres very strongly around Jenna, employs numerous devices for communicating her thoughts and feelings. The movie is also very interested, though, in the various ways in which its characters try to communicate with one another, within the world of the movie. These two sets of strategies will be considered together in this Alternate Take.

First, Jenna’s pies, which are both a way for her to communicate with others in her world, and are used by the movie to show what goes on in her mind. Whereas some people, and movie protagonists, might be moved to use a diary entry, a poem or a song as a medium for conveying their experiences, Jenna invents pie recipes and (sometimes) makes them. Indeed, the names she gives to the pies could easily be turned into titles of blues songs by simply replacing ‘pie’ with ‘blues.’ Here are a few examples (courtesy of IMDb’s ‘memorable quotes’ page for the movie):

"I Hate My Husband Pie: You take bittersweet chocolate, and don’t sweeten it. You make it into a pudding and drown it in caramel."

"Earl Murders Me Because I’m Having An Affair Pie: You smash blackberries and raspberries into a chocolate crust."

"I Can’t Have No Affair Because It’s Wrong And I Don’t Want Earl To Kill Me Pie: Vanilla custard with banana. Hold the banana."

It is wonderful the way an emotional experience becomes one of, say, taste (bittersweet chocolate) or pie-making method (smashing berries), and the way that Jenna’s disappointments and miseries become food products that appear - and by all accounts are - absolutely exceptional. Pie-making also seems like such a communal, practical and unself-absorbed act. The Simpsons’ Bleeding Gums Murphy tells Lisa ‘The blues isn’t about making yourself feel better, it’s about making other people feel worse,’ but Jenna’s pies clearly do make a lot of other people very happy (even if that is not usually their primary purpose for her). Jenna’s problems are not made into humble pie or bitter pills for others to swallow, but into soft and (almost always) sugary treats. The movie does not make it appear that Jenna is somehow packing her troubles into pastry for the rest of the world to eat and in so doing take away from her: her feelings remain largely the same, the pies just make them easier to cope with. One could, though, I think, see something motherly about the way Jenna bakes up all these (as I have just said, usually very sweet) things for others to eat all the time - and this helps to pave the way for the plausibility of her change of heart when the baby is born (especially given that her mother was also a prolific pie-maker).

In one amusing montage sequence, where Jenna is in the first flush of her affair with Dr Pommater, we see a comical look of confusion stay on her face across a series of locations before a smile spreads, which then also stays put as we see her going through mundane activities: her husband sleeping on her shoulder on the couch and then next to her in bed, and as she breezes through the diner. When her baby is first born, we get a few shots where everything in the frame except mother and child is out of focus. These are nice touches, but, along with the movie’s use of Jenna’s pies and recipes, the most successful device it finds to convey Jenna’s thoughts and feelings is that of writing letters to her unborn child.

Jenna makes it clear to Becky and Dawn, and to Dr Pommater that she is not happy about being pregnant. (An efficient bit of dialogue in the diner also establishes, though, that she does not intend to do anything to harm the baby, and that she does not - as she should not - feel guilty about not feeling ‘affection’ towards it.) In an attempt to win her round a little, though, Liz and Dawn buy Jenna a baby book, which includes a page for ‘your first letter to your baby.’ Many movies do without a motivation for their characters’ voiceovers, but Waitress uses Jenna’s occasion for writing/speaking here brilliantly. There is a real poignancy in hearing Jenna measure her life and feelings against that which the baby book assumes its recipient to have (‘…even if life isn’t always as wonderful as this book makes out,’ or something similar, is the line I am trying to recall). The movie and its protagonist also ‘bare the device’ without it becoming disruptive: ‘I guess this letter to you is really a letter to me.’ It is, rather, a moment of honesty and introspection.

Waitress is also fascinating in its handling of the ways men communicate (almost invariably with women: there are only a handful of instances of two men talking together). Old Joe, the owner of the diner where Jenna works, reads the newspaper’s horoscopes and problem pages to her as she serves him. In fact, sometimes he makes them up, wanting to give her advice, but also seeming to need this fixed, impersonal mode in which to do it, even if both of them are in on the joke. This, and the fact that Joe is pretty curmudgeonly for most of the movie, helps Waitress to avoid slipping into sentimentality (at least, for the most part).

Doctor Pommater, as noted in my short review, will also take refuge behind the role of doctor when he needs to - but this is always motivated by his own insecurities rather than any attempts to control or block out Jenna. Less benign is the way that Earl, Jenna’s husband, tries to ‘communicate’ with her. When we first see Earl, when he comes to pick Jenna up after work, we already know her feelings towards him, and those of her co-workers. In the car on the way back home, Earl at first repeatedly prompts Jenna about all the things she should be saying and doing (asking him how his day was, kissing him). He then gets upset when Jenna cannot repeat (‘verbatim’) what he was just telling her. There is a mixture here, one that the movie maintains with Earl for the remainder of the time, of an insecurity about how much his wife cares for him, which (I think) does generate some limited sympathy for him, and of his desire for a wife who, in outward gesture and inward thought, follows a script laid out by him without deviation. This is succinctly reprised later when Earl gets Jenna to repeat after him: ‘I promise I will never love the baby more than you, Early.’ Earl wants all his wife’s desires to be channelled towards him. He does not want her to enter the pie-making contest (‘Don’t I give you everything you need?’ he asks her), and, she tells Cal, her boss at the diner, he will not buy her a car because he is afraid of the freedom it will give her. At times, he also communicates with her like a dog, or a child, beeping his horn to hail her when he arrives at the diner, and, at one point, giving her ‘thirty seconds’ to get into the car.

The major male character left to deal with is Ogie. After a disastrous ‘five minute blind date’ with him, Dawn is relentlessly pursued by Ogie. At first, she is horrified (within the comic, heightened terms of the movie, which prevent Ogie from appearing dangerous - as they largely prevent Dr Pommater from being considered unethical), but then she appears to fall in love with him. Ogie composes spontaneous poems to Dawn all the time (‘If I had a penny for everything I love about you, I would have many pennies’). The significance of the Dawn-Ogie storyline is difficult for me to put my finger on. Dawn’s change of heart is not explained with any precision: the only motive the movie offers is that she is ‘settling for’ Ogie. And Ogie is a troubling character, given the movie’s preoccupation with communication, due to the degree to which what he is preoccupied with is how he feels. In the stalking phase of the relationship, he tells Dawn that he knows what he wants and does not change his mind. Thereafter the main subject of his poems is, as much as the things in Dawn that he loves, the feelings that this gives him. Ogie’s outbursts, and Dawn’s appreciative cooing, seem like a poor substitute for adult communication - even within the stylized terms the movie sets out for itself. Nevertheless, the movie does seem to want us to be happy for this couple and their prospects, and during their wedding, Ogie does at least tell Dawn that he intends to try and be what she needs him to be.

On the whole though, it is not romantic bliss that the movie seems to single out as the most valuable thing that men and women can offer each other. ‘At first, it was just the sex,’ Jenna tells her baby in a letter, as we watch a montage of Jenna and Dr Pommater’s love-making. The movie reserves its main emotional charge and eloquence, however, for the sequence where Dr Pommater becomes her 'best friend,’ listens to what she says ‘like it matters,’ and asks her to teach him how to make a pie.

One more sequence crystallizes the movie’s apparent attitude to relationships and the prospects for happiness they carry with them. Jenna chances upon Becky and Cal in one another’s arms in the diner’s kitchen. Up until now, Cal has simply been a shouting, uncaring boss figure. Jenna at first berates Becky. However, as the movie’s tone shifts at around the two-third point, there is a scene which clinches this shift. Jenna, her eyes red from crying, asks Cal point blank whether he is happy, directly and sincerely. What we might not expect is the sincerity of Cal’s answer, rendered slightly comic by its formal delivery, but sincere nonetheless (and perhaps better, less sentimental, because of this comedy). I lean on IMDb again. Even though I think the quotation is not quite perfect, it will do:

"You ask me a serious question, I’ll give you a serious answer. Happy enough. I don't expect much. I don't get much, I don't give much. I generally enjoy whatever comes along. That's my truth for you, summed up for your feminine consideration. I'm happy enough."

This Alternate Take was published on September 25, 2007.

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