I’m not even sure where to begin here. How about this: Waitress stars the stunningly beautiful but strangely-not-hot Keri Russell as Jenna Hunterson, a spirited waitress who works at Joe’s Pie Shop, a small-town diner in the South. Jenna has inherited her mother’s knack for the art of pie-making, and each day she whips up a new pie and names it after whatever mood she is in (don’t ask me why, but the pies looks positively sumptuous — the cinematographer here does for pastry what Elliot Davis’ cinematography did for Detroit in Out of Sight; it’s kind of unreal). Her two co-workers at Joe’s are Becky (Cheryl Hines), the sassmouth Flo of the establishment, and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly), a geeky horn-rimmed-glasses-wearer who looks like an ideal candidate for a She’s All That makeover.
Jenna is trapped in a marriage with Earl, (Jeremy Sisto) quite possibly the worst husband ever to appear in a magic-realist comedy (“I hate my husband pie”). He’s completely unredeemable: neurotic, controlling, insanely jealous, and a complete idiot to boot (he’s a bumpkinfied version of Sisto’s “Six Feet Under” character off his meds). Jenna has been saving up money to escape her dead-end life with Earl when she gets drunk one night and accidentally allows her husband to have sex with her, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy (“I don’t want Earl’s baby pie”) that she’s really not happy about (“baby screaming its head off in the middle of the night and ruining my life pie”). The pregnancy leads her to the new, awkwardly nervous small-town OB-GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Nathon Fillion, at his absolute best), whom she falls in love with (“I can’t have no affair because it’s wrong and I don’t want Earl to kill me pie … hold the banana.”) Rounding out the cast is Joe (Andy Griffith), the diner’s irascible old soul who pries into Jenna’s personal affairs.
And that’s the premise — Jenna is trapped in an untenable situation, in love with one man, terrified of another, and very pregnant with an unborn child she already resents; Becky is caught up in an affair with an unknown married man; and Dawn is involved in a relationship with someone who initially repulses her. But that really does nothing to get to the heart of this movie — it has a plot, but it’s not plot-driven. It’s driven by a fairy-tale whimsy. And this infectious floaty feeling that seeps into you while watching Waitress, a light emotion that hovers in the pit of your stomach and gently rises until the suffocating triangle of Jenna’s life traps it in your chest. And then the finale releases it, like a popped cork, unleashing every emotion within you like … like … waking up and realizing, for the first time in ages, that there is someone lying next to you in bed, lit by the sun seeping through the shades — groggy and halitosic, but striking nonetheless.
I’ve given in to hyperbole, of course. But the feeling is not that dissimilar from what I described: a warm, fuzzy, magical, epiphanic feeling made even more poignant when you realize that Adrienne Shelly — who not only wrote and directed the film but also plays Dawn, a character you can see and sense and watch and enjoy — died tragically — was murdered brutally, in fact — only months before Waitress debuted at Sundance.
Which is not to say that Waitress doesn’t have its faults — it’s jarring, at first. Hard to get a feel for the tone — it’s like Brick in a way. Until you adjust to what’s going on and realize that the acting isn’t bad, it’s intentionally loopy and over-the-top, you may think you’re watching a weird, screwball-sitcom parody with the brand of whiplash poignancy that “Scrubs” has popularized. But the actors sell it — Kerri Russell’s earthiness grounds it, Nathan Fillion’s charming nervousness endears you to it, and Andy Griffith’s down-home folksiness and soft heart completely freakin’ delivers it home. It’s just … well … the whole thing … it’s just so goddamn moving. It’s decent film. A humble film. And there’s no pretension; there’s no forced quirk, no nods at the camera, no “Look-at-me! I’m sweet and charming and cute!” vibe. It’s just modest and heartfelt and good.
And I swear I’m not high right now.
Listen, Waitress isn’t for everyone. If you don’t care for romantic comedies, it’s probably not going to work for you — and if it doesn’t, you’ll probably loathe it (there isn’t a lot of potential for the middle ground with Shelly’s style). The plot is not terribly original. But the tone and feel is like nothing I’ve ever seen before on film. And if you allow yourself to give into it, to get swept up by its charm, you’ll walk out with an achy heart and a smile that may not fade for days.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Waitress / Dustin Rowles
Film | May 3, 2007 | Comments ()