Director: Adrienne Shelly
Cast: Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Cheryl Hines, Jeremy Sisto, Andy Griffith, Adrienne Shelly, Eddie Jemison, Lew Temple
MPAA Rating: (for sexual content, language and thematic elements)
Running Time: 1:47
Release Date: 5/2/07 (limited); 5/11/07 (wide)
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Review by Mark Dujsik
There's a scene a little more than midway through Waitress where writer/director Adrienne Shelly seems to be challenging the audience not to fall in love with Keri Russell in this role. She is teaching her gynecologist/lover how to bake a pie, and she starts to sing the song her mother would sing to her as a child while she learned to make pastries. She is singing to him, but she might also be singing to her unborn child. She is definitely singing for herself, though. We have seen Russell's Jenna the waitress content making pies a few times before this, but in this scene, with someone who genuinely cares for her listening and learning from her, she is not just content but happy. We fall in love with Jenna well before this, and this is the moment it pays off. Waitress is a romantic comedy with the usual complications, concerns, and dynamics, but it doesn't seem quite so familiar because it stays focused on Jenna and the things that make her tick. This is the third and unfortunately final feature film of Shelly's, who died in 2006. It is a sweet film—charming and full of life—and for those reasons, it's difficult not to feel sadness for a life lost by the time its finale rolls around.
Our first look at Jenna is as she's making a pie. She is in a different world in the process, the slightest of grins etched on the corners of her mouth. That look changes drastically when she gets support from her co-workers Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Shelly, quite sweet in her final role) while she takes a pregnancy test. It's positive, which elicits the following words of wisdom: "I shouldn't get drunk. I do stupid things, like sleep with my husband." Soon we meet her husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto), and we know how she feels. He's a controlling jerk. He honks his horn in rhythmic succession to get her in the car quickly, takes her tip money, and forces her to ask how his day was. Jenna makes her way through life with Earl and the knowledge she's having his baby by imaging recipes for pies with names like, "I Hate My Husband Pie" and "Bad Baby Quiche." She has a plan to escape, though, and in the meantime, she intends to keep the baby a secret from Earl. Expecting the doctor who delivered her during her first examination as an expectant mother, she's surprised to meet Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), a nervously charming man with a noticeable crush.
For Russell and Nathan Fillion, these are star-making performances. The dialogue between the two is alive with that tricky thing called chemistry. They are so natural, so spot-on with the delicate dance of testing the waters before making the jump of putting one's heart on the line, that the pair elevates the story necessity that they fall for each other to the level that it is their needs that drive the relationship. Their first romantic encounters remind one of inexperienced teenagers going at it because it feels good. Then it starts to feel right. They talk on the phone; she writes a letter to her unborn baby that she finally has a best friend. Russell and Fillion give us every reason to want these two to be together and slowly divulge all the reasons they cannot. Dr. Pomatter, after all, is a man, and the men here are either nasty, stupid, or some combination of the two. There's Earl, of course, and there's also Old Joe (Andy Griffith, in a really nice persona-based performance), the diner's owner and occasional customer, who's as crotchety as can be. Somewhere underneath his prying and barked orders, he does care about Jenna, but it takes until after his final moments on screen to realize how much (the revelation is touching although taken too much for granted).
Even Dr. Pomatter, who's supposed to be Jenna's charming, nice-guy escape, is cheating on his wife, who, in the brief glimpse we see of her late in the film, is also a sweet, loving woman. It all fits in the film's ultimate concept of where Jenna should be, but it is a shame that a script that cares so much about lonely people ignores its male characters' own emotional isolation (yes, that includes Earl, who is so troubled, it's clear something's going on behind his actions). The film is about Jenna, though, and it has a keen sense of female bonding and maternal fear ("Ride of the Valkyries" plays as she watches a mother attempt to deal with her demanding son). It's never in doubt where the film is going, but Shelly's script is affectionate and full of blithe humor. The ending wraps up its complications far too easily, just to fit in with Old Joe's advice to Jenna: "Start fresh. It's never too late." A more appropriate theme is brought up by Jenna's (unsympathetic, of course) boss (Lew Temple), who, when asked if he's happy, responds "I'm happy enough." In the end, that seems to be the real, simple theme: live to be happy with what you have.
The final shot is perfectly composed—the image of mother and daughter (played by Shelly's daughter) walking down a heavily wooded path is symbolic without overdoing it—and Shelly's patience to let it play out before the credits roll shows a promise that will never be fulfilled. Indeed, the final minutes of the film are genuinely affecting in spite of its reliance on sudden changes of heart, clean breakaways, and easy answers. Waitress is full of verve, warmth, and a genuine love of life, and it is a fitting eulogy to a life cut short.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.