Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Cheryl Hines, Jeremy Sisto, Andy Griffith, Adrienne Shelly, Eddie Jemison, Lew Temple
PG-13 (for sexual content, language and thematic elements)
A gifted pie maker dreams of what her life might be like if she could get away from her mentally abusive husband in Waitress.
Jenna (Keri Russell) knows her way around pie filling. She’s created some amazing and tantalizing bakery treats and is known all over town for her culinary masterpieces. Unlike her pies, her life is not as perfect. Her husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto) is a self-centered, bordering-on-abusive, boor. He expects her to leap at his order and refuses to allow her to move beyond life without him.
Every day she comes up with new recipes, each one built around something that is occurring in her life. These creations take up a minute of narrative periodically, but are sufficient to convey Jenna’s state of mind.
When her gynecologist decides to retire, her replacement, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion) gives her a new reason to be optimistic. Her attraction is nearly immediate, but she cannot act on it out of fear Earl might find out. However, as we expect, she eventually allows herself to be seduced, even though she later finds out that there is a Mrs. Pomatter.
The restaurant where she works is filled with a number of classic, down-home characters who might fit just as well in an old rerun of Hee-Haw, were it more dramatic. This isn’t to say the characters aren’t vibrant. The late writer and director Adrienne Shelley made sure of that. The only problem with them is they seem cribbed directly from the 70s film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and its corresponding television series Alice.
Sassy Becky (Cheryl Hines) is a near replica of the Diane Ladd (film)/Polly Holliday (TV) character Flo and self-conscious Dawn (Shelley) is quite similar to the Valerie Curtin (film)/Beth Howland (TV) version of Vera. Even restaurant owner and namesake Cal (Lew Temple) bears a striking similarity in character to Vic Tayback’s (film and TV) Mel. Knowing these similarities may help understand the characters better than we might on the big screen, but Shelley’s narrative still manages to develop each on their own.
The diner even has a cantankerous old regular played by Andy Griffith. His curmudgeonly ways mask his concern for those around him, especially Jenna who he always demands as his waitress (and the rest of the staff prefers it that way). Griffith provides great support in one of his best role in years. His wisdom is tempered by his temperament, but it all works together to create a thoroughly lovable character.
Russell’s performance is crisp and entertaining. She never makes the words and thoughts of her character feel disingenuous. Despite her reserved and gruff demeanor, we can see the heart of a wounded woman displayed in every scene. Fillion isn’t up to her quality of work, but he provides a needed emotional sounding board for her character and for that we can forgive a touch of woodenness.
The trio of lead characters wouldn’t be complete without Sisto’s gruff, yet vulnerable abusive husband. In the hands of other actors, he might have been more sinister and less dimensional, but through Sisto’s performance, we can see a vulnerable side that reveals itself fully only in the final moments of the film.
Shelley’s ability to blend her actor’s performances with her snappy, astute dialogue is one of the reasons to admire the film, even if you find the Alice similarities a bit too convenient. That her life was ended so terribly early was to deny us an opportunity to see what she might have been able to accomplish after this auspicious debut.
January 28, 2008