Written by James Zborowski.
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."
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.
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).
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.
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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