Film review by: Witney Seibold
“Waitress” kind of sneaks up on you. When we are first introduced to the characters, they are too droll and folky and protracted; they are mere stereotypes of the typical, downhome-cookin’ Southern ladies and gents. The opening dialogue is too stagy. The entire tone of the piece seems like a corny sitcom. Land sakes, It’s about a pie-makin’ expert.
But as the film diligently presses onward, and the stereotypes melt away into characters and situations that seem more bittersweet and more honest, it begins to actually grab you in the places it intends. By the end, we understand Jenna (Keri Russell) and the decisions she’s made, and we are elated that she’s seeking the happiness that she’s earned. The film itself has also earned any cornball situations it may have.
Jenna is the eponymous waitress at a pie diner somewhere in the South. Her two co-workers Becky (Cheryl Hines from “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and Dawn (Hal Hartley regular and writer/director Adrienne Shelly) care about her, but aren’t the kind of friends she hangs out with outside of work. Jenna’s husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto, who is a little too good at playing this kind of role) is a controlling and emotionally abusive husband who doesn’t so much talk to Jenna as give her orders. The owner of the diner where Jenna works is a bitter old coot (Andy Griffith) who is loud and has persnickety food demands of her. Jenna’s situation seems like a lifetime of ramming her head against the dead end she’s in. She can’t quit her job, can’t leave her husband, and has no best friend to confide in. Oh, and she’s pregnant with a child she doesn’t want.
Her only glimmer of hope is the fact that Jenna can make pies better than anyone to ever live. She invents a new pie every day, usually poetically connected to her fragile emotional state, and with a creative name like Marshmallow Mermaid Pie.
Also, and luckily, Jenna’s new obstetrician is a self-effacing northern hunk (played by Nathan Fillion from “Firefly” and co-worker of The Arrogant Worms), and the two of them start to have a dangerous but very emotionally rewarding love affair. Affairs can never end well, but we understand why Jenna needs to have this man, and, since it’s been established what a bastard her husband is (which is largely due to the casting of Sisto) it’s o.k. that she and her doctor occasionally leap all over one another. Jenna’s co-workers also have their own romantic issues: Eddie Jemison, from the “Ocean’s” movies, shows up at one point as an overenthusiastic suitor for Dawn, and Becky is openly cheating on her off-screen invalid husband with the on-screen floor manager at the diner.
“Waitress” is indeed a comedy, despite the misery and infidelity and weight I’ve described. It starts out feeling light and fluffy and insignificant. Even the color scheme is all bright and sunny primary colors, and the film seems, for the first passages especially, like it’s going to float away. It is only rated PG-13, after all, so can’t give us any real shocking violence or language to let us know how dark things are for Jenna. But it doesn’t float away; it stays grounded.
Keri Russell’s performance does seem protracted and folky for a few minutes, but when we see the desperation in Jenna’s marriage, and her pie-related creative outlet, we come to understand her and feel what she feels, making Russel’s performance almost exactly what the role calls for. You may hate Earl, but it takes courage to play a character so hated, so Sisto’s presence goes a long way to centering the film’s wispiness.
It was also a boon to cast Andy Griffith in the role of the curmudgeon who occasionally breaks out with some homespun clichéd romantic advice. The iconic Griffith may not be one of the finest actors, but, at 87, he’s been in the game long enough to know how to deal with the clichés he may have to say from time to time. His destiny in the film, which I will not reveal, almost seems like a cliché in itself, but one that the film earns, and Griffith lends power to.
In Memoriam: “Waitress” was written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, a ubiquitous supporting actor for Hal Hartley. It was her first directing effort, and she proved herself capable of making a very good film. On November 1st, 2006, shortly after “Waitress” was completed, but before it was released, Adrienne Shelly was murdered in her Manhattan home by a teenage construction worker working on the floor below. She evidently went down to complain about the noise he was making, they got into a fight, and he flew off the handle and knocked her out. Her death was thought to be a suicide, as her killer staged a hanging, but he later came forward with the details and was arrested.
In her memory, her widower has started a foundation, which can be found online at http://www.adrienneshellyfoundation.org , and is designed to benefit women filmmakers. A cynic might accuse me of giving “Waitress” a positive review simply as a response to the tragedy of the director’s death, but that cynic would not have seen “Waitress” yet, and would not have experienced the joy and skill that went into its making. Shelly is a talented director, and it is only a pity that we will not be able to see more of her films.