Waitress is a fine film, funny and tender, with a terrific performance by Keri Russell, but it is also coated with a patina of melancholy. The writer, director and co-star, Adrienne Shelly, was murdered shortly before it premiered at Sundance. As I watched the film in a nearly full house, I wondered how many of my fellow audience members knew that, and I sort of envied them if they didn’t, because I would have liked to have judged this film without that knowledge.
The film is structured as a fairy tale, with Russell as a heroine not too far removed from Cinderella. There’s a villain, a handsome prince, even a fairy godmother. And while it is a comedy of sorts, there is an undercurrent of profound sadness, even without the real-life situation intruding. Russell plays Jenna, a waitress at a pie diner (I must admit I have never come across an establishment of this sort) and something of a genius in inventing pie recipes. She is trapped in a loveless marriage to an ogre played by Jeremy Sisto, who has a strangehold on her financially, making it difficult for her to leave. She hides some of her wages, hoping to save up to leave him in the dust. Things get complicated, though, when she learns she is pregnant. They get even more complicated when she falls for her handsome obstetrician, Nathan Fillion.
As played by Russell, Jenna is seriously depressed, finding comfort only by palling around with her co-workers (Shelly and Cheryl Hines) and making pies, some of which are created for her particular moods, such as I Hate My Husband pie, which is chock full of bittersweet chocolate. She is kind of like a whipped dog around the husband, rotely complying with his pathetic attempts to gain attention and approval. It is only when she begins her affair with the doctor that the character blooms. There is a terrific sequence when Russell carries a look of supreme perplexity on her face, which eventually yields to a thousand-kilowatt smile. Russell, who is probably too pretty for this role, still manages to sell the character’s desperation. I cringed along with everyone on screen everytime Sisto appears.
As with any debut screenplay, Waitress has its problems. Sisto’s character is without any redeeming quality. He does show vulnerability and would be a prime candidate for a therapist’s couch, but things are just too deeply stacked against him. Each of the other waitresses have a sub-plot, but they aren’t well explored. Andy Griffith is the crusty codger who owns the diner and befriends Jenna, and he is close to being a cliche, though Griffith is a gifted enough actor to avoid that pitfall.
At the end of the film, we see the child Russell eventually gives birth to grown to toddler age. She is played by Sophie, Shelly’s child in real life. There is a moment when she waves bye-bye to Shelly’s character, and an otherwise deeply emotional scene is made even more so