Waitress (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Waitress is a pleasant dramatic comedy that overcomes its tonal inconsistencies by presenting an engaging lead character with whom its virtually impossible not to empathize. The film makes its share of missteps, occasionally feeling a lot like a sit-com and sometimes calling attention to quirky filmmaking devices that don't work (such as a character's face being frozen for an inordinate amount of time in a single expression). In the end, however, Adrienne Shelly's movie has enough of a heart that it's easy to forgive, if not entirely overlook, such issues.

Shelly was an independent film actress who began directing movies in the late 1990s. In addition to being her final film, Waitress is her most accessible. She was murdered on November 1, 2006 in New York City, while working on post-production for Waitress. The film was completed after her death and debuted at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. The tragedy of what happened to the writer/director lends an unintended bittersweetness to the proceedings, especially since she is often on-screen in a supporting acting role.

Most of the action in Waitress takes place at a diner where Jenna (Keri Russell) does the double duty of waiting tables and designing the restaurant's daily pie specials. When it comes to pies - sweet, savory, or in between - Jenna is a wizard. Her fellow waitresses, outgoing Becky (Cheryl Hines) and mousy Dawn (Adrienne Shelly), are in awe of her culinary expertise but less-than-impressed by her home life. She's married to a Neanderthal of a man, Earl (Jeremy Sisto), who uses fear and intimidation to keep his wife in line. One of their occasional, unromantic couplings leads to Jenna becoming pregnant. She visits Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), the young M.D. who has taken over the practice of her now semi-retired regular physician, and has soon tumbled into a torrid affair with him. This creates yet another complication in Jenna's suddenly convoluted existence.

For the most part, Waitress opts for a tone that wavers between subtle comedy and light drama. The exception is when Earl's around. This is a dark character who's a stereotypical representation of the wife abuser. There's nothing redeeming or human about him and when he crawls on screen, things become uncomfortable. The scenes in which he physically abuses Jenna are not graphic but they are disturbing nonetheless. Shelly's heavy-handedness in representing this character is surprising since she shows a deft touch with most of the other men and women populating the movie.

There are times when the screenplay is a little too obviously cute, such as a scene in which an ecstatic Jenna spends an entire day at the diner with her features frozen into an unwavering smile. The low-key humor offers plenty of chuckles but few belly laughs. When it comes to using pies as a metaphor, however, Waitress is unparalleled. Hardly a scene goes by without one making an appearance and some of them are sure to tempt the palate. While I wouldn't put this in the same category as some of the great "food movies," it leans in that direction.

The greatest single strength of Waitress is actress Keri Russell, who transforms this character into a woman of immense appeal. Russell is wonderful in the role and it's in large part due to her likeability that the movie doesn't begin to feel stale and overfamiliar. There's a freshness to the way Jenna is written and acted that causes us to like her more every minute she's on screen. She charms us in much the same way that she charms crotchety Old Joe, played by Andy Griffith.

Waitress reminded me in a general sense of Jennifer Aniston's The Good Girl, although this movie boasts more froth. Both movies are about women trapped in bad marriages and going through the motions of a boring, routine existence. For Jenna, the way out comes through her affair with Dr. Pomatter. He may not be the love of her life, but her clandestine meetings with him open up the possibilities available to her. This theme of empowerment will probably find resonance with many audience members and it's one reason why Shelly's movie deserves more consideration that something this light and seemingly inconsequential might otherwise receive.

Waitress (United States, 2007)

Director: Adrienne Shelly
Cast: Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Cheryl Hines, Adrienne Shelly, Jeremy Sisto, Andy Griffith
Screenplay: Adrienne Shelly
Cinematography: Matthew Irving
Music: Andrew Hollander
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2007-05-02
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1