Adrienne Shelly's Waitress (116 screens) is a delightful little film, a yummy food movie and a romance with a dark, quirky, funny edge to it. Everyone seems to like it. It has made over $2 million so far in its brief run, and its IMDb ratings are high. Word of mouth should keep it running for a good long while. Certainly it's one of my favorite films this year so far, or at least one that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend or perhaps even see a second time. But there's another element to the film that permeates, yet comes from outside it.

On November 1, 2006, Shelly's husband found her body hanging by a bedsheet in her Manhattan bathroom. At first glance, it looked like suicide, but clues quickly led to the arrest of 19 year-old construction worker Diego Pillco, who confessed to the crime. Apparently, Shelly, 40, had complained about the noise he was making in the apartment below. Waitress had been completed and was ready to roll at the Sundance film festival just two and a half months later.

No one will ever be able to guess whether Waitress would have received any kind of distribution had Shelly lived; it's possible that the publicity surrounding her death led to extra attention for the film. Shelly had made her debut as an actress in Hal Hartley's The Unbelievable Truth (1990) and turned director herself in 1994 with a series of short films, as well as the features Sudden Manhattan (1997) and I'll Take You There (1999) -- neither of which received any kind of love from distributors. Regardless of what the answer is, Waitress is out there for everyone to enjoy, although even viewers are faced with the unexpected extra weight of the "final film."

Is this how Shelly would have liked to leave the world? She seems to have been in a good place while making Waitress. Her own character, the nerdy, self-conscious Dawn breaks down under the persistent advances of a poetry-spouting geek named Ogie (Eddie Jemison); when she confesses her new romance to her co-workers, she does so with a certain amount of shame. But in the end, everyone comes to realize that, indeed, she does seem happy with Ogie. We know she'll be treated well and deservedly so. Shelly's treatment of the title character, the pie-making Jenna (Keri Russell), pregnant, stuck in a bad marriage and having an affair with her doctor, is equally hopeful -- even if it doesn't end in romance.

One of the movie's most telling moments comes when Jenna confronts her stern, sour boss, Cal (Lew Temple), asking him if he's happy. He explains in a lovely bit of dialogue that he's "happy enough," and that if he doesn't ask for much, he generally gets everything he needs. It's not great wisdom or anything, but it gains weight coming from beyond the grave.

Final films have become a source of wonder for many film buffs. What were the director's final words? What was he or she thinking at the very end? When Robert Altman died, my first thoughts scrambled back to what suddenly became his final film: A Prairie Home Companion. Virginia Madsen's character, a kind of friendly angel looking to claim a soul over the course of the film, didn't work the first time I saw the film, but in retrospect she has a kind of haunting relevance.

Many final films seem eerily appropriate, like John Huston's The Dead (1987); he shot it while very ill, from a wheelchair and with an oxygen tank, probably fully aware of the significance it would have. I also believe that it turned into his best film. Akira Kurosawa's Madadayo, about a retiring teacher, was also beautifully appropriate. (It was made in 1993, but not released in the U.S. until 2000, two years after Kurosawa's death.) For Fritz Lang's final film, he played himself in Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (1963), speaking his famous line about "snakes and funerals." (His own final film came three years earlier, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse).

Ernst Lubitsch never got a final film; he died during the production of That Lady in Ermine (1948) and Otto Preminger (of all people) was called in to finish it up. Other final films came a bit too late, leaving the director on a low note, such as Federico Fellini's The Voice of the Moon (1990), Howard Hawks' Rio Lobo (1970) or Billy Wilder's Buddy Buddy (1981). It's a bit gruesome to wish that these great filmmakers had died a bit sooner, so that their final films could have been a bit better. (Fellini's second-to-last film, Intervista, from 1987, would have made a perfect candidate.) Some final films mean nothing at all, such as Hitchcock's perfectly serviceable, enjoyable Family Plot (1976). Orson Welles' final film, The Other Side of the Wind, is still unreleased.

But, as with Waitress, if a final film is released after the filmmaker's death, it raises certain questions of authenticity. Who finished the film, and if so, how closely did they stick with the director's wishes? Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is the ultimate final film -- the best film I've seen since I've been a professional movie reviewer -- but has also raised the strongest doubts. In the U.S. Warner Brothers was forced to add digital enhancements to cover certain nude scenes to receive an "R" rating (in Europe no such tweaking was necessary). Would Kubrick have gone back and re-shot those scenes? Some of his close associates say that he would have, that the film was nowhere near finished.

Regardless, the film as released has everything necessary to qualify as a masterpiece, as well as a new step in Kubrick's artistic growth. The director had never before dealt with human sexuality, at least not on any kind of direct level (there had been deviant behavior on A Clockwork Orange and Lolita). It was his most mature work, and it perfectly concluded his career. I'm not sure yet if Waitress will do the same for Shelly's career (I need to check out her other films), but it may be the loveliest, sweetest goodbye note I've ever seen.
CATEGORIES Columns, Cinematical