Like a puppet master with a twisted sense of humor, Dutch writer-helmer-actor Alex van Warmerdam has gleefully dished out suffering to hapless characters in films like "The Northerners" and "Grimm." He puts the cruelty of the creative process itself in the spotlight with the nested narratives of "Waiter," wherein a schnitzel-slinger (played by van Warmerdam himself) takes periodic timeouts from his unhappy life to ask for a break from the writer penning his life.
Like a puppet master with a twisted sense of humor, Dutch writer-helmer-actor Alex van Warmerdam has gleefully dished out suffering to hapless characters in films like “The Northerners” and “Grimm.” He puts the cruelty of the creative process itself in the spotlight with the nested narratives of “Waiter,” wherein a schnitzel-slinger (played by van Warmerdam himself) takes periodic timeouts from his unhappy life to ask for a break from the writer penning his life. This sophisticated black comedy could serve up small B.O. portions for niche distribs, especially if marketed to auds who like cerebral Charlie Kaufman-style metafiction.A waiter at an unassuming bistro in an unnamed Dutch town, sad-sack Edgar (Alex van Warmerdam) leads a life of quiet desperation, serving customers all evening and then spending the night with his needy mistress Victoria (van Warmerdam-film-veteran Ariane Schluter) before he goes home to his bedridden wife Ilse (Sylvia Poorta). After about a quarter of an hour of this dull routine, the story’s frame opens out to reveal all the action up until now has been the work of screenwriter Herman (Mark Rietman), whose g.f. Suzie (Thekla Reuten) takes an enthusiastic — maybe too enthusiastic — interest in his script. At Suzie’s urging, Herman has Edgar and Victoria experiment in sexual role-play. After Herman writes a scene where Edgar is beaten and humiliated by a particularly rude customer (Pierre Bokma), Edgar suddenly appears at Herman’s door. Edgar wants Herman to write in a different romance with a sexier femme, and while he’s at it give him a snappy comeback or two the next time the abusive customer visits his chop shop. The writer duly complies, deleting Herman’s wife from the plot with a few keystrokes, and then introducing vampy brunette Stella (Lynn Renee), with dire implications for poor Victoria. Switchback after reversal follows in amusing fashion, although the pic ultimately never amounts to much more than a witty, smoothly assembled exercise in style and narrative playfulness. Moreover, there’s something almost sweetly old-fashioned about the plot’s structural antics– a trickiness scarcely different from games played by dramatist Luigi Pirandello in 1921 with “Six Characters in Search of an Author” or Woody Allen in his 1960s-era short story “The Kugelmass Episode” which anticipated the later film, “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” Nevertheless, sensitive thesping from the helmer — and Schluter in particular — adds the right touch of pathos to keep things from seeming too empty, especially as it’s hard to feel much for characters whose fictitiousness we are reminded of at every turn. In fact, Edgar, Victoria and Walter are more sympathetic than the smug, supposedly real Herman and Suzie. Still, the likable but slight “Waiter” feels most like a low-budget exercise devised to keep the creative juices flowing after the much more draining and resonant “Grimm.” “Grimm” lenser Tom Erisman reteams with van Warmerdam here to produce impressively sharp and well-lit work on high-definition, with only a little loss of detail in the blacks. Gert Brinkers’ production design and Patricia Lim’s costumes have a retro feel, somehow invoking ’70s sitcoms in their use of patterns and silhouettes.