2007; Writer-director: Adrienne Shelly
With Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Cheryl Hines, Jeremy Sisto, Adrienne Shelly, Andy Griffith, Eddie Jemison, Lew Temple
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Available Nov. 27, List Price $29.99
Jenna Hunderson (Russell), a waitress at Joe's Pie Diner, has a genius for baking. And her Wednesday special, Strawberry Chocolate Oasis pie, sends the diner's crabby owner (Griffith) floating toward rapture. "It could solve all the problems of the world, that pie," he declares, his normally surly face starting to crease beatifically. "It's downright expert, a thing of beauty how each flavor opens itself one by one, like a chapter in a book. First the flavor of an exotic spice hits you, just the hint of it. And then you're flooded with chocolate, dark and bittersweet, like an old love affair. And finally strawberry, the way strawberry was always supposed to taste but never knew how."
Old Joe isn't the only eccentric in Waitress who spouts impromptu poetry. A yokel named Ogie (Jemison) courts one of Jenna's coworkers (Shelly) with such heartfelt, top-of-the-head doggerel as "If I had a penny for everything I love about you, I would have ... many pennies." As for Jenna a newly-pregnant woman who hates her husband Earl (Sisto), resents the "alien parasite" growing inside her and is attracted to her handsome new OB-GYN (Fillion) the poetry she pours into her pies is intensely personal, as are the mood-reflecting names she gives them. They are their own droll plot synopsis: I Don't Want Earl's Baby pie; I Hate My Husband pie; Baby Screamin' Its Head Off in the Middle of the Night and Ruinin' My Life pie; Fallin' in Love pie; Earl Murders Me Cause I'm Havin' an Affair pie; I Can't Have No Affair Because It's Wrong and I Don't Want Earl to Kill Me pie; Naughty Pumpkin pie; Pregnant Miserable Self-Pityin' Loser pie ... the list goes on.
In this forthrightly lovable comedy, virtually everyone speaks in aphorisms that tilt toward comedy or pathos and often mix the two. Skeptics would note that most of the supporting characters have limited emotional agendas: the waitresses and the men in their lives can each be reduced to a quirk in search of a climactic twist. That's true, but within the stereotypes there's a richness of behavior and dialogue of incisive words opening interior worlds that put me in mind of golden-age Hollywood comedy. Shelly certainly learned more from the old screenwriting masters than has Judd Apatow, whom critics have canonized as Preston Sturges reborn and unleashed.
Waitress is full of wryly articulate folks, most of whom feel trapped in dead-end lives; they make smart talk and stupid choices. And with one major exception, they are painfully self-aware painful, because they know the sad or addled impression they make on others. Like the people in James L. Brooks movies, they get their biggest laughs making rueful, keen observations about themselves. They know life's joke is on them. This applies to the small roles no less than the big ones; they all get their little sunburst of auto-analysis. Cal (Temple), who manages Joe's, is a very minor irritant throughout the film; but when Jenna asks him if he's happy he opens up enough to say, "Happy enough. That's my truth, summed up for your feminine judgment."
In this menagerie, Jenna stands out for a few reasons. She's pretty, and has the good manners her mother taught her along with the magical pie recipes and because she treats her work as a vocation both sacred and ecstatic. She's the madonna of pastries. But her hard life, particularly her sullen bondage to a monster husband, lends her observations a flavor her pies never are: tart. Romantically, Jenna has what might be called a Quaid quandary: she's in love with a thoughtful, sexy Dennis type (Dr. McDreamy) but she's wed to a loutish, brutal Randy (Earl). The marriage has ground her into immobility. She finally has a hope, that she'll be freed from Earldom by a decent man who's as crazy about her as she is about him. (His line, near the start of their courtship, that "I wish it were Friday," triggers one of the movie's happiest laughs.) But that hope is tempered by knowing that he's married too. For a perky gal, Jenna is in deep, deep depression, and only a miracle can pull her out of it.
The script has one, which is all too upliftingly banal, after the acute portrayal of Jenna's misery. Not that Waitress is unique in recanting its first 90 mins. in its last 10. Virtually all contemporary movies, including the better indie films, are fairy tales, as locked into happy endings as the creakiest old soap opera or romantic comedy. They're afraid to let the audience tiptoe out in a sour, pensive or equivocal mood.
Having said that, I have to confess that this critic gave his pruny heart to Waitress, and wished for the best, against all plot logic, for Jenna. That's partly because the movie is located in a fantasy small town and, by extension, in a make-believe cosmos where awful wrongs exist to be righted. My sweet feelings are also due in large part to Russell, the Mickey Mouse Club alum who played Felicity on The WB. She's faithful and generous to a woman who expects disappointment, is thrown by compliments, and often smiles through eyes that have cried themselves dry.
Shelly, the writer-director-costar who made her early impression in Hal Hartley's Trust and The Unbelievable Truth, deserved the happy later life she dreamed up for Jenna. Shelly wrote the script while she was pregnant with her first child, shot it last year and had the good news that it had been accepted at the Sundance Film Festival. On Nov. 1, 2006, she was found murdered in the Greenwich Village apartment she used as an office. She was 40. So her very promising, endearing first feature was also her last. This atrocity deprived audiences of another three decades of movies as good as or better than Waitress. Those who knew Adrienne Shelly have lost more: a friend, a colleague, a wife, a mother, an inspiration.
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