Waitress (2007) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, language and thematic content
Running time: 107 min.
Cast: Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Jeremy Sisto, Cheryl Hines, Andy Griffith, Adrienne Shelly, Eddie Jemison, Lew Temple
Director: Adrienne Shelly
Screenplay: Adrienne Shelly
Call this Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore for a new generation, with this tale of a diner waitress, the grouchy cook, co-workers both sassy and meek, and a woman who finds a sense of her self amid all of the trials and tribulations. Even if the main story seems oddly familiar, it's the unique vision at the heart of the film that keeps this like the pies made daily at Joe's Diner -- innovative, always fresh, and made from personal inspiration. It's also one of the finest releases of the year.
Jenna (Russell, Mission Impossible III) is a pie diner waitress working in a pie shop in a small southern town, married to an abusive, possessive husband (Sisto, Angel Eyes), and quite unhappy with the current state of her existence all around. She channels her feelings into daily pie creations, and even dreams of one day entering them into pie contests, although her husband regularly puts his foot down whenever she wants to do something on her own (I Hate My Husband Pie shortly follows). She's been hiding tip money from her husband in order to save up enough to get away from him once and for all, but gets thrown for a loop when she finds herself expecting a baby (Bad Baby Pie soon makes its debut).
All seems bleak until she meets a new doctor in town, Jim Pomatter (Fillion, White Noise 2), with whom she feels awkward, but with a certain chemistry. Though both of them are married, she finds a certain escape with him she hasn't felt in years, and even some happiness. However, the times they can share with one another are few, and with a jealous husband always on the prowl, something's going to have to give in order for her to find the courage to do something for herself.
Waitress is a quirky but very pleasant film by writer-director-costar Shelly (I'll Take You There, Sudden Manhattan), very much in keeping with the rest of her work, which is equally quirky but pleasant. It tells a simple story, but tells it well, and with its themes of a woman finding a means to self-identity through a deep-seated belief that there's more to life than the one she's made for herself, it strikes a resonant chord for those stuck in similar ruts. Jenna does almost everything right in her life, even agreeing with her husband even when he is wrong, afraid to say the things in her mind except as found in the telling titles of her pies. Her demeanor is always stoic (with the exception of two key moments where she emphatically smiles), depicting a woman whose every emotion is kept buried deep down, but always wanting to burst out if given half a chance at some happiness.
Shelly casts her film well, not only in an excellent Keri Russell at the forefront, but also in most of the supporting roles. Especially appealing are juicy characters for Andy Griffith (his best in years), Eddie Jemison (Ocean's Twelve) as an amateur romantic poet, and Nathan Fillion does make for a sympathetic potential mate that you wish she could end up with, instead of her no-good husband. Interestingly, even the husband is not painted in a completely unsympathetic light, coming off as that jealous and quick-tempered man whose life is never quite as good as he feels it should be, taking it out on his wife. He's the kind of man you'd find in many small towns exactly like the one Jenna is from, defeated by life, clinging desperately to someone to share in his misery.
Waitress is a bittersweet movie in many ways, not only on the screen and off. It is perhaps the best work in Shelly's short career as a director (only three full-length features to her credit), but sadly, she would become the victim of a senseless act of rage which ended up in her death shortly before the film's entrance into Sundance. As much as I tried to block the sad story from my mind as I watched the film, it permeated my thoughts throughout. It's impossible to completely shut out, as Shelly's physical presence is on the screen often. The impact becomes all the more tragic, as this is a very personal story about finding love, family, and peace with oneself. It is a tale about living without regrets, pursuing ones dreams of the future while still in ones prime (The key phrase of "It's never too late" is a sad irony). It is a very mature film from a filmmaker who appears right on the cusp of delivering great things, and yet, we'll never see another. Though the film is ultimately uplifting, at the same time, it's tragically heartbreaking.
©2007 Vince Leo