I’ve been tussling with how I feel about Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress for two days. Setting aside the inescapable sense that the film has been overpraised in light of Shelly’s murder before the film’s premiere at Sundance, I have finally concluded that the best I can say is that I have mixed feelings. That’s to say that I liked Waitress (almost in spite of myself), but I don’t think it’s anything like a great movie. It is, however, ultimately a greatly enjoyable one that’s a lot like its heroine’s humorously named pie creations (“I Can’t Have No Affair Because It’s Wrong and I Don’t Want Earl to Kill Me Pie”)—just different enough to be distinctive, but not different enough to be anything other than pie. Waitress boasts enough charmingly off-kilter touches to have its own identity, but it’s still firmly grounded in prefab, time-tested material to ensure its status as nonthreatening, crowd-pleasing indie fare.
There’s nothing wrong with this—I’ve often given points to films that work because of their savvy ability to fulfill our expectations, to do what we want them to do (The Family Stone (2005) comes to mind)—but it’s not what you’d call great filmmaking. Waitress is in this category, but with a bit more clunk that’s balanced out by a large dose of humanity and two strong central performances from Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion—with some helpful support from Andy Griffith and Jeremy Sisto.
At first, the film doesn’t seem to work at all. The setup is remarkably stiff and incredibly derivative. The distance between Joe’s Pie Restaurant characters—the three waitresses Jenna (Russell), Becky (Cheryl Hines, R.V.) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly) and gruff manager Cal (Lew Temple, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning)—and the Mel’s Diner characters from the old TV sitcom Alice (1976-1985) is … well, nonexistent. (It’s hard not to expect Becky to tell someone to “kiss her grits” at any moment.) Also, there’s the usual array of Hollywood/New York notions of how quaint and unlettered everyone is in the South. (One day I’ll go to a movie set in the South where characters won’t look at you with blank stares if you mention Immanuel Kant, Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell or even Ish Kabibble—at which time I’ll faint from the shock.)
However, a change comes over the film once we get past the setup of establishing Jenna as the “pie genius” of Joe’s Pie Restaurant, the dynamics of the restaurant and its inhabitants, and the cosmic awfulness of Jenna’s abusive, misogynistic control-freak husband, Earl (Sisto), and into the plot proper concerning Jenna’s unwanted pregnancy. The introduction of the pregnancy—and Jenna’s feelings about it (which supposedly reflect some of Shelly’s own fears and feelings during her pregnancy)—gives the film its first dose of identity. This isn’t the first film to include an unwanted pregnancy in its plot, but it may be the first to address the doubts of the mother in such a fresh and forthright manner. (Though it turns pretty traditional by the end.)
The next point that makes Waitress something more than it at first seems comes when Jenna starts her sparring relationship with her new obstetrician, Dr. Pomatter (Fillion), an otherwise happily married man who becomes entranced by Jenna. The relationship is firmly grounded in “meeting cute,” but quickly becomes a believable part of the film—thanks to the writing and even more to the performances and chemistry of Russell and Fillion. Their scenes together are what truly keep the film afloat. They’re touching, funny and human. Something of that can be said of Andy Griffith as Joe, the cantankerous owner of Joe’s Pie Restaurant. It’s not much of a role—standard lovably crotchety-outspoken-old-man stuff leading to a groan-inducing deus ex machina bit that’s way beyond predictable—but his lines are sharp, and Griffith makes every one of them (and every facial expression) count. The surprise performance, though, comes from Jeremy Sisto’s Earl. He’s never likable—not even remotely—but he’s pathetically human. It’s painfully clear that he is simply incapable of understanding his own monstrousness.
Other things are less successful. We never really understand how Jenna came to marry Earl in the first place (“and then he changed” is neither satisfactory nor believable). The supporting characters of Becky and Dawn are thin; Becky’s “secret” is no surprise at all; and Dawn’s relationship with dweebish Ogie (Eddie Jemison, The Punisher) feels like grafted-on filler. Then too, the production itself has a hurried look to it that scarcely suggests the passage of eight months. (All the scenes in front of Dr. Pomatter’s office must have been shot in a couple days to judge by the unchanging bloom on an agapanthus next to the steps.) But the biggest drawback lies in the fact that the film reaches its proper end and keeps going for several draggy, inessential scenes that weigh it down.
So, yes, Waitress requires a little slack, but at its best, it’s rather special—something that makes it inescapably more bittersweet, since we know we’ll never see Shelly have the chance to expand on the promise of her debut feature. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and thematic elements.