Author: Cameron Fairchild
The 2000s were a pretty terrible time for onscreen representations of women in mainstream American comedies. (Note: The history of onscreen representations of women in American cinema has always been and continues to be like, 95% terrible.) Between the noxious, anarchic world of Adam McKay’s “Bush era satires” and the similarly noxious, more realistic world of Judd Apatow’s purgatorial 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, the R-rated, adult comedy was king, in all its retrograde, committedly uncinematic splendor, and while those films soaked up favorable critical attention and mainstream success, women-led comedies, especially rom-coms, fell deeply out of favor with critical attention and audiences. The 2000s was basically a decade long death knell for the mainstream romantic comedy, as post-9/11 machismo and male-led CGI action calcified in Hollywood. By the time 2011’s Bridesmaids rolled out, its reductionist reputation for “discovering” that women can make sex puns too was at least partially due to the fact that women were routinely absent from roles as active, funny members of Apatow and his acolytes’ ensembles. The woman-led mainstream comedy could only really be made by these boring, boring, boring male filmmakers.
Far afield of all of this mess but born in the same time frame was 2007’s Waitress. Waitress is not a comedy, exactly, although it was sold as one. Directed and written by Adrienne Shelly, the film follows a young waitress whose pregnancy throws her abusive marriage and thankless job into stark relief. The retro, outdated diner she works in serves as a clean exterior hiding a retrograde attitude, one shared by her boss, her husband, and the world around her. Like the diner, the film’s heightened, hyper-aware, bright coloring and design suggest on their surface something a lot safer and easier to digest than what the film offers. While the film is certainly funny, it’s also dramatic, nuanced, and deeply critical of its satirical targets in a way that McKay never could and never will accomplish. An independent production with a budget of less than two million dollars, Waitress isn’t a simple romantic comedy or a meat-headed sex comedy, but a radically adult, formally rigorous dramedy intrinsically unlike so much of what it was surrounded by.
Helmed by a post-Felicity Keri Russell, one of the most critically underrated and underserved cinematic performers of the last 20 years, giving maybe her best performance outside of her all-time great work on The Americans, Waitress succeeds in grounding the stylization of the film through Russell’s performance. Imbuing protagonist Jenna with an initially earnest sense of youthful inexperience, before gradually and excitingly gaining the confidence to take control of her life back from her terrible husband, Russell shines. The ensemble of the film is stacked with notable TV actors who you wish had actual film careers; Six Feet Under’s Jeremy Sisto is particularly terrific as Jenna’s abusive husband, a creature fundamentally vile, needy, and only half-aware of his helplessness. Waitress’ excoriation of toxic masculinity is keenly realized in the maddening depths of moral weakness Sisto brings to the part. Nerd icon Nathan Fillion is also here, charmingly awkward as Jenna’s doctor as the pair spiral into a similarly awkward love affair.
Shelly’s direction and writing, which balances an attention to character work, vibrant visuals, and a seriocomic tone that manages a real sense of discomfort when it needs to, is a breath of fresh air against the functional, TV-adjacent comedies of its time. As an actress herself, Shelly, who plays a supporting character in the film, was no doubt attuned to the need for strong characterization, while never letting the camera just linger dully so that jokes can be uninventively delivered. She was an absolute talent, unappreciated in her time. Unfortunately, her life was cut short three months before Waitress debuted at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Waitress was her final appearance on-screen and behind it. Since then, the film was pretty much unduly forgotten until the recent, excellent musical adaptation of the film in 2015. So often great women filmmakers get lost, overlooked, while the march of male whatevers like McKay get Oscar nominations for directing slideshows like Vice. This column itself has spotlighted a few of those mediocrities in the past. Shelly and her film were absolute outliers in the mid-2000s comedy scene, but Waitress remains more relevant, watchable, and cinematic than most of the stuff that still dominates the popular conscious.
CAMERON FAIRCHILD | Pay attention to women filmmakers, lest they get buried by the patriarchy and time. You think media is safe and accessible in our modern digitized age? Try to find any of Lone Scherfig’s early 2000s work or the vast majority of Maragarethe von Trotta’s filmography. Women-led films have a funny, eerie way of just like, disappearing, especially in the U.S. Support media preservation, too, I guess | KXSU Arts Reporter