Waitress Film Study (2007)

Waitress is a 2007 film with a tragic real life story behind the movie. It is also a good storytelling case study, as it changes mood part way through.

waitress film poster

Though I don’t like Waitress nearly as much as I like Juno, it’s worth a brief compare and contrast as a way of understanding the way the rom-com is evolving through the decades. Writers can no longer expect large, enthusiastic female audiences for films which basically end with a happy-ever-after when the couple comes from such completely different socioeconomic backgrounds (Would Pretty Woman get a great reception today?) We don’t want to see a woman basically saved by a man. Modern female audiences (even those who love rom-coms) expect agency in our female heroes — it’s not enough to be saved by a prince. (This sort of retrograde, pure fantasy is valid as a fantasy though, and may explain the increasingly popularity of erotica, rather than romance, which at least nods in the direction of feminism.)

First, what Waitress and Juno have in common:

  • They are the same blend of three genres: Drama, Romance and Comedy.
  • They were both released in 2007.
  • They are both indie productions.
  • They’re both about a young woman who, at the very beginning of the story, is thrown into crisis with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy.
  • They are both stories which subvert the traditional love story by ending with the female hero happy, but not happy because she has been reunited with man and child — happy because she has been on a journey to ‘find her true self’.

As far as feminist messages go, Juno does a better job. Waitress has the right general idea, but undermines itself in several ways:

  • Jenna’s husband Earl does not transcend the stock character of a toxically masculine red-neck husband in the way that Juno’s boyfriend subverts high-schooler stock characters by being both nerdy and sporty. He is so very unlikeable that it’s difficult to see how Jenna could ever have ended up married to him. Witnessing the unfortunate relationships of her two best friends are meant to give us some insight into how Jenna, too, ended up with a man like Earl, but it still doesn’t quite work, as Jenna seems smarter.
  • Domestic violence is only hinted at. The problem with portrayal of domestic violence in a rom-com is that it’s the wrong genre to explore it seriously.
  • Although it appears Jenna suddenly achieves independence on her own, she in fact is saved by a man, and why did Jo leave all that money to her? Why was he so involved in her life? Because she’s pretty, let’s face it. (The admiration appears to have been largely one-sided.)
  • Jenna’s friend seems to have learnt an unfortunate lesson in love: That stalking equals true love. This is a source of comedy — the man has truly terrible poetry — and the message for the audience seems to be ‘well, you never can judge other people for who they find attractive’, but the unintended message is also that stalking works.
  • Dr Pomatter was created before the decade of NiceGuysTM, but to me comes across as hapless and hopeless and obviously not interested in pies. Let’s face it: Dr Pomatter is not in any kind of prison. As a highly educated white man, America is his oyster. If he’s not happy with his wife (and his actions would suggest he is not) then he should get over himself and leave this small town. He can literally go anywhere. I didn’t buy his bullshit, though perhaps that was the writer’s intention; Jenna doesn’t end up with him, after all.

Still, this film was made on a very low budget ($2m) and grossed closer to $20m, so it’s a success in financial terms. It’s also got a rating of 7.1 on IMDb, so this film is a success by many standards.Waitress has an unfortunate real life drama — writer and director Adrienne Shelley was murdered by a tradesman in her own home before the film was released. So she didn’t even get to see how it became a box office success.

Let’s see how Adrienne Shelley told a satisfying story, even if we have personal political problems with the message…

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Dawn is played by Adrienne Shelley

Storyworld

This is an unspecified Southern American town, and I have not ever been to an actual Southern American town, but I’m getting the impression that this is the utopian version thereof. There are certain Southern features in this story arena: The accents, the diner as the main setting, the ‘native’ sexist man (called Earl, of course) versus the forward-thinking newcomer (Dr Pomatter) and the feeling that cultural evolution stopped in the 1950s. The nurse is even wearing an old-fashioned uniform of the sort never seen today except in kinky dress-up scenarios. Pies, too, are a symbol of 1950s America, in which housewives had the time to bake, and were encouraged to think that pie-baking was an expression of love. Jenna, too, has absorbed these values.

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Symbolism

Pie Waitress Movie

The pie symbolism would be way too heavy-handed in anything other than a comedy. The pies Jenna concocts represent her moral dilemmas and inner turmoil. As you can see, the pie above symbolises love. The pie itself, though, hooks us into the 1950s housewife sensibilities that the story then aims to subvert. We’re lead to expect a cheesy love story because of these pies, and we’re therefore a little surprised when Jenna ends up without any man at all.

 

7 Step Structure Breakdown of Waitress

1.  Weakness/Need

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Psychological Weakness: Jenna is in a bad relationship but doesn’t have the strength to leave. Whenever she has a problem she deals with it by making up a new recipe for a pie. She is cynical when it comes to love: “What if it’s my prince charming?” “There’s no such thing.”

Moral Weakness: Although the audience is helped to understand Jenna’s position (Earl is ridiculously despicable), it is a moral weakness (in general) to hate your own husband while pretending everything is all right, then start something with another man. Jenna is not truthful with the people she is closest to. She also considers selling her baby as a way to raise cash — also challenging to the typical audience.

As seems to be the case in all of these stories about a downtrodden wife, it’s necessary for the audience to understand the nature of sexism and acculturation as it happens in small towns. The film A Walk On The Moon has exactly the same problems for a certain segment of the audience: That film, too, is about a repressed wife who has an affair. In order to understand why she did that, it’s necessary to understand the likes of that explained by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. An issue with Waitress is that it is not in fact set in the 1950s or 60s, so we might expect Jenna to have a little more freedom and agency, and just leave her damn husband.

2.  Desire

In the first scene Jenna realizes she’s pregnant, throwing her life into chaos, since she doesn’t love (or even like) the man she’s with, Earl. She wants to save money so she can leave her husband. She desires to win a big pie competition, in which case she will win $25k and, as her friends point out, she could open her own pie shop.

3.  Opponent

Earl, her husband, is a stock character. He’s a masculine redneck who thinks a woman’s place is to cook and clean for him.

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Dr. Pomatter is a romantic opponent, as romantic conquests usually are at the beginning of stories. The problem with romantic plots is that the writer needs to concoct some way to keep the lovers apart. In this case there’s the fact everyone is married plus the unethical bit about a doctor sleeping with a patient. Dr Pomatter is the inverse of Earl, which does not equal perfect — Dr Pomatter isn’t possessive of his wife (that we can see) but he is unfaithful to her. (Is the name ‘Po Matter’ deliberately unappealing? All I can think of is the contents of a po.)

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Jo – who is Jenna’s crotchety old-man boss who owns the pie restaurant – is basically her ally who does the bit where the hero is confronted by her ally about her moral decisions. He does this covertly by pretending to read out Jenna’s horoscope from the newspaper but really he’s playing a sort of fairy-godmother, crystal-ball role, giving her life advice based on what he’s heard about her and the doctor’s affair. His views are conservative, in line with the views of the community and also in line with those of a conservative audience: homewrecking is a thing — affairs are always the woman’s fault. (I’m paraphrasing.) Anyhow, I wonder if he also confronted the Doc for being a philanderer… He had every opportunity when he was in hospital!

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4.  Plan

The plan is to save money working at the diner making pies, then eventually leaving Earl. But of course this plan doesn’t work – she is forced to tell Earl that she is pregnant because he’s starting to get violent with her. Earl wants to be a father. The complicating factor is that Jenna and her doctor are falling in love with each other. Then Earl finds Jenna’s stashes of money. She lies and says it’s all for the baby’s things (when it’s actually for her running away).

5.  Battle

For Jenna, the battle is the birth. This leads to the self-revelation. So, the birth process (in which, once again, we see a woman on her back despite not being hooked up to all sorts of cords and monitors, THE most painful way to push out a baby) is symbolic for Jenna’s inner turmoil. 

6.  Self-Revelation

Jenna realizes that she doesn’t want to be the reason Dr Pomatter’s marriage breaks up when she meets his wife for the first time and observes how much the wife seems to admire her husband. Then, when Jenna sees her baby for the first time she realizes what true love is, and that she doesn’t love her husband at all. The baby gives her the strength to tell Earl that she doesn’t love him and he gets dragged out of the room by staff.

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7.  New Equilibrium

When Dr Pomatter unwraps the supermarket pie thing and watches Jenna leave we know he’s going to go back to his wife and that he’s going to go back to eating his crappy pies rather than Jenna’s homemade ones. We see a flash forward to Jenna happy and singing to her baby while she continues to work at the pie shop. Alone. She is financially secure because of the money left to her by Jo, and the next scene shows us that she now has her own pie shop, bustling with people and brightly decorated. She has named it Lulu’s Pies after her daughter. (And after her real life daughter, who appears in the film.) She continues to be great friends with her female buddies.

waitress allies

Black Books Pilot (2000) TV Study

The pilot episode of Black Books is called “Cooking The Books”.

One thing Cooking The Books does really well is introducing the audience very quickly to the three main characters (all of them transcending stock characters, though based on stock), and weaving them together for gags at the climax. When broken down, we can see that each of the story strands indeed has the seven basic steps of a complete narrative. Indeed, even the minor characters, the Mormons, have their own complete storyline.

1. Weakness/Need

Bernard

Psychological need: He’s terrible with numbers and has no patience to learn how to do his own taxes.

Moral need:  He’s horrible to people, and as an example, doesn’t even know his own mother’s name.

Fran

Psychological need: She is a bit clueless and probably a drunk. For example, she’s ordered something to sell but has no idea what it is.

Moral need: Self-centred, she plans to get drunk while her friend gives birth ‘so that it can be like the good old days’. She has no desire to actually help the friend. She sells ‘a lot of wank’ to her customers.

Manny

Psychological need: Manny is highly-strung to the extreme, and can’t control his cortisol levels.

Moral need: He isn’t doing his job properly even though he’s being paid to do it. He is petty and in order to get out of a situation he’s been ‘caught out’ in he’ll continue to elaborate on the lie. (A common feature of comedy characters.)

The Mormons

Psychological need: They’re out proselytising but they have no idea what they’re really supposed to be saying.

Moral need: They push the word of god onto people even if they don’t want to hear it. (The audience knows this moral need already — it doesn’t need to be set up by the show.)

2. Desire

Bernard wants to get his taxes done so he doesn’t get in trouble with the tax department.

Fran wants to find out what the big round thing is that has arrived in her shop and which she has to sell in great numbers.

Manny wants to do as little work as possible while remaining calm. In order to do this he needs a ‘The Little Book Of Calm’ at arm’s length so that he can refer to it at any time.

The Mormons wish to convert Bernard to Mormonism, or something (they’re not really sure — what they really want to do is go door to door knocking, then onto the next one, as they’ve obviously been told).

3. Opponent

Bernard’s opponents are ironic. Normally people are annoyed by Mormons knocking on the door, but Bernard welcomes the distraction because he is in the middle of his taxes and has already paired all his socks. Bernard wants to get his legs broken, so the thugs who eventually beat him up are unwittingly doing him a favour. Bernard’s real opponent is the tax office, unseen by the audience.

Fran doesn’t have a clear, single opponent in this episode, unless it’s her friend giving birth, which will be standing in the way of her partying from here on in. 

Manny’s opponent is his immediate boss, who expects him to do work, which he can’t/won’t do.

The Mormons’ opponent is Bernard, who is a sort of ‘secret enemy ally’ — his only motivation is to procrastinate over his taxes but he gives them the impression he’s interested in hearing all about Jesus.

4. Plan

The main source of comedy in this episode is that Bernard’s initial, sensible plan does not work. His subsequent ideas get more and more ridiculous. In fact, this is the format of the entire show. As TV Tropes explains:

Black Books relied on A Simple Plan for pretty much all of its plots. The characters would decide to go to a party, or do their taxes, or write a children’s book, or something, and would more or less use this as a springboard for a lot of bizarre and/or appalling behaviour, until they eventually failed, or at best broke even.

Bernard plans to get his dodgy accountant to do his tax but this can’t happen, first because Bernard’s book keeping skills are terrible and second because the police come for the accountant while Bernard is sitting in his office. So he is forced to change his plan: He decides he’ll read all the instructions and do his tax himself. But he doesn’t know the most basic information about himself (e.g. His mother’s first name, let alone her maiden name), and he can’t understand the instructions. He welcomes any distraction. Finally, he reads a bit where he can delay filling out his tax form if he can prove he’s been sick/injured, so he plans to get his legs broken. He’ll swap this favour for a free book. But this plan doesn’t work even after he’s set it up because the man who has agreed to break his legs realises at the last second that he has in fact read this book and doesn’t want it anymore. So next, Bernard plans to start a fight with some thugs.

Fran’s plan is to ask everyone she comes across what they think the lighter thing is. Fran’s plot line is a mystery, of sorts.

Manny’s plan is to buy a copy of The Little Book Of Calm and read it while looking like he’s working but actually eating chunky soup at his desk. This plan goes wrong when he accidentally drinks the little book when it falls into the soup. For the rest of the episode he wanders round in a Jesus-like state spouting advice from the book.

The Mormons plan to come back later, after Bernard is finished being drunk, and work on their conversion then.

5. Battle

Bernard’s battleground is the fight between him and the thugs, which he picks deliberately. This is your classic ‘battle scene’.

Fran’s battleground should be the birthing room but she is instead having her own battle — rushing up to a customer and demanding to know what the round thing is. The scenes are similar in their levels of desperation. When another customer suggests the ball looks like ‘a fake breast that dads wear’, Fran is suddenly reminded of where she’s supposed to be.

Manny’s battleground is also with the thugs, until Bernard intervenes.

We don’t see the Mormons’ battle, but we do see Bernard drunk and saying goodbye to them, so we can assume this is their battleground. The looks on their faces show that they are rather taken aback by whatever has just preceded the arrival of our camera.

6. Self-Revelation

Bernard works out that the Jesus figure who he has woken up to is an accountant. He realises he can just get him to do his accounts (and also ask him for a wine and a sandwich with a pickle.)

Fran works out that the ball thing is a lighter when she sees Manny using it.

Manny’s ‘self-revelation’ comes in the form of cheese lines spouted out of The Little Book Of Calm which he has literally swallowed… and absorbed into his system.

When Manny opens the door of Black Books looking like Jesus, the Mormons run away.

7. New Equilibrium

Bernard has a friend who is going to do his books for him.

Fran has a best friend who now has a baby (and are they still best friends, since she forgot to turn up for the birth?)

Manny is a much calmer version of his former himself, and has a new friend in Bernard.

The Mormons presumably they think Manny is the second coming or something — we know they won’t be back — not by choice, anyway!

Irony in this episode

Irony is the ‘meaningful gap between expectation and outcome’.

Presentation Irony: This is when the audience is used to the tropes of a particular genre but the story throws us off course. The audience expects Mormons to be experts on all things biblical. But ironically, Bernard actually knows more about Jesus than the Mormons do. This is ironic on multiple levels: Because he knows nothing at all about taxes, even though that’s his business — no one in this show knows how to do their job properly — they’re all complete misfits. The other irony is that we expect people who know about Jesus to behave in a ‘Christian like manner’, and Bernard is basically a cynical misanthrope.

Opposite Outcome Irony: This episode has several instances of this kind of irony. Lemons become lemonade when the skinheads turn up outside Bernard’s shop, because he was just aiming to cut off his own wrist with an electric kitchen knife after trying desperately to persuade someone to break his legs for him. Also, when Manny almost dies from swallowing a book he absorbs its messages into his system and turns into a Jesus-like figure.

Surprising means to an end: “Oh come on Bernard, you’d really have to cripple yourself. You’re hardly going to do that just to avoid doing your accounts,” Fran says, the voice of reason. The look on Bernard’s face tells us that’s exactly the sort of thing he would do.