Jenna is unhappily married, squirreling away money, and hoping to win a pie-baking contest so, with the prize money, she'll have enough cash to leave her husband Earl. She finds herself pregnant, which throws her plans awry. She bakes phenomenal pies at Joe's diner, listens to old Joe's wisdom, tolerates her sour boss Cal, is friends with Dawn and Becky (her fellow waitresses), and finds a mutual attraction with the new doctor in town. As the pregnancy advances, life with Earl seems less tolerable, a way out less clear, and the affair with the doctor complicated by his marriage. What options does a waitress have?Written by
it's got all the right ingredients to be a cut above most rom coms
Waitress could have turned into a middling mess, or something with characters that are hard to like (or, I should really note, sociopathic) if done in a more hard-lined Hollywood 'rom-com' assembly-line output (in 2007 those were still done). But Adrienne Shelley was more, for lack of a less precise word-choice, sweet-hearted about her characters. Even the villain of the story, and he is a villain who stands firmly in the way of our hero Keri Russell, her character's husband played by Jeremy Sisto, takes a break (if only in the tiniest moments) to not be a scumbag and show how he too can be vulnerable and afraid.
He surely shows his humanity the least - Sisto is scarily adept at making his Earl into a presence that's felt off camera too, if not more so - but Shelley had with Waitress a real chance to make a commercial picture and she took it. Prior to this she directed a couple of low budget independent films, and with this may have seemed to go 'mainstream'. The casting choices though are what count here especially; Russell carries so much screen presence that it's a wonder the lens doesn't make out with her before Nathan Fillion's Doctor does. And in small parts she gets things right too with Cheryl Hines as another waitress at the diner where Jenna serves and (especially, well, uniquely) makes pies, and Andy Griffith is the nice-but-demeaning water (he better get his two waters AND have time to read the horoscope!)
There are times when the movie goes into perhaps being too 'cute' or 'quirky'; this is from the same studio, Fox Searchlight, that would a few months later put out another story of an uncertain-in-her-life young woman, Juno, and there's points this dips into being a story that is so light it might float away (or another way to put it on the other extreme is that it's a more grounded version of Pushing Daisies). And oddly enough if there's one part of the movie that doesn't work for me it's ironically Shelley's own sub-plot, where she's another waitress courted by a stone-cold Nebbish with a capital N, and who have an argument in the diner which kind of grinds the movie to a halt.
But I can forgive (most of) that for how pure the relationship is between Russell and Fillion on screen; I wish I saw more of Nathan FIllion in movies, or at least in leads like this where he gets to develop a character and he shows us just enough to get to understand why he's doing the things he is. Or, on the reverse, not entirely know why, again this is from Jenna's point of view and that's crucial - we're seeing it through HER eyes, through the downtrodden hero we want to see get out of her loveless marriage. Though some parts are funny (scattered really), it's actually more of a drama with a light touch, and it feels harrowing at times in the scope of a low-middle class, blue collar existence: what does one do with the options presented, i.e. bad marriage, a baby on the way that may/may not be loved, and an affair that is hot but untenable?
Russell guides all of these conflicts of the character beautifully, leading up to a conclusion that is genuine and moving. To a further point, knowing about the horrible circumstances outside of the production - Shelley was murdered just before the film was released, though it was finished at the time - makes the very ending a real lump-in-the-throat moment (or just cry your eyes out, go for it). Waitress wears its emotions on its sleeve, but it carries its sincerity along both in the writing and performances, so it's a tough film to ever put down all that much.
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