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The overextravagance of Spider-Man 3 made me nostalgic for the days when comic books were nerdy and disreputable. Like many other misfits, I read them with a flashlight under the covers; I never dreamed I’d someday have to read them for my job, that I’d get hate mail if I wasn’t conversant with the complete oeuvre of Marvel Comics. I never dreamed that the most expensive movie of all time would feature the figure who, on Saturday-morning cartoons, “spins a web, any size / Catches thieves, just like flies / Look out!” With its cathedral-set epiphanies and holy choirs and good-conduct sermons and bad guys who don’t really mean it, it’s a different order of comic-book movie. It’s the new Ben-Hur.

The young Canadian actress Sarah Polley has always combined a blunt, no-b.s. delivery with a slightly abstracted air, and she brings that odd blend to her focused yet dreamy debut feature Away From Her. A loving adaptation (by Polley) of Alice Munro’s story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” it’s about the struggle of an ex-professor, Grant (Gordon Pinsent), to come to grips with the Alzheimer’s disease of his wife of 50 years, Fiona (Julie Christie). But this is no Illness of the Week movie. Its real subject is the instincts that emerge as Fiona’s short-term memories fade—that steer her away from her husband, who once cheated on her with his students, and into a nurturing, dependent relationship with a mentally enfeebled patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy), at her “retirement facility.” This sounds like the stuff of a male-comeuppance movie—but Polley (like Munro) aims much higher. Away From Her is a twilight-of-life love story, one that harshly demolishes our romantic notions of love and loyalty, then replaces them with something deeper and, finally, more consoling.

Could there be a more transcendent Fiona than Christie? The actress has wrinkled, of course, but all hail great bone structure! She has the same face, the same faraway eyes, the same otherworldly beauty she had in her youth. Her Fiona is present (the shell remains, and so does the inner glow) and yet just out of reach. When she greets her husband with a coquettish, “You’re persistent, aren’t you?” you don’t know if she recognizes him or regards him as a new suitor (it’s likely a bit of both). As Grant trails her around her new home, watching her stroke and cling to her new special friend, you see in his eyes the raw pain of a boy abandoned by his first great love, struggling to make cosmic sense of the injustice. Where this takes him is nowhere you could imagine.

Away from Her is part memory play, weaving in and out of the past as Grant drives down the wintry Canadian roads to see Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis). How you view what follows might depend on how you regard both the character and the actress—who is fresh and youthful-looking and funny, but has the unenviable task of playing an alternative to one of the screen’s most sublime beauties. However you feel, you’ll brood on it long after this haunting movie ends.

More than anything, I wish I could write about the boisterous romantic comedy Waitress without reference to the tragic murder of its writer, director, and co-star Adrienne Shelly. It’s hopeless, though. Because the movie is so hit-and-miss, I kept getting thrown out of it and returning to thoughts of its maker—of what must have been her busy inner life, her evident joy in making movies, and her potential, down the road, to develop an authentic American voice and make wonderful screwball farces.

Waitress centers on a creative and enthusiastic small-town pie-baker (Keri Russell), who’s married—rather inexplicably—to a brute (Jeremy Sisto) and who gets thrown into emotional chaos when she finds herself pregnant. The baby is an alien, a parasite, an agent of her husband. But she won’t get rid of it. And her new OB-GYN (Nathan Fillion) is smitten—which means weekly and sometimes daily visits to his office. The ping-pong dialogue seems more suited to the stage than the screen, but Fillion—star of Joss Whedon’s neat sci-fi series Firefly and its movie, Serenity—has the perfect dopey haze, and during his scenes with Russell, some old-fashioned movie magic takes hold.

Shelly’s staging is pushy, and the film doesn’t look very good—the lighting does the actors no favors. But the climax, in which the heroine finally regards her little girl, is wrenching for all kinds of reasons. I think of Waitress as an overstuffed, overcooked pie—too ungainly to eat all of, too generous to pass up, too heartbreaking to contemplate for long.

Spider-Man 3
Directed by Sam Raimi. Columbia Pictures. PG-13.

Away From Her
Directed by Sarah Polley. Lionsgate. PG-13.

Waitress
Directed by Adrienne Shelly. Fox Searchlight Pictures. PG-13.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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