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


About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

3 responses »

  1. Good review. I didn’t realize the toddler was played by Shelly’s actual daughter. Then again, I didn’t realize until the closing credits that Shelly played Dawn, so that knowledge would have made little difference to me. I just was not familiar with Adrienne Shelly, I guess (although I knew the story of her death).

    Speaking of which, interesting that you thought Russell was too pretty to play the role. I thought she did a great job, but I also thought – during the movie, before I knew it was Shelly – that the actress playing Dawn would have really been perfect as Jenna.

  2. I agree with you about Shelly playing Jenna.

    I have seen a number of Hal Hartley films that Shelly starred in back in the day, so I was quite aware who she was.

  3. Saw this tonight and pretty much agree with Jackrabbit Slim’s assessment.

    I was a bit concerned with the opening section of the film was rather ham-fisted and obvious. There’s an early bit where the three waitresses are chatting, one of them says something noteworthy and the two others have the same exact reaction in unison ; it was a minor thing but it irritated me as I feared the film would slip into lame sitcom territory.

    But the film got better as it went along and I became quite involved in it. It began to win me over about the time Jenna writes her letter to the opening baby (which was quite movingly done) and then completely won over with the terrific segment JS mentioned where Jenna’s face turns from perplexity to a full-blown smile; the highlight of the film for mine.

    Interesting point about Shelley being arguably more suited for the central role; that may be true (although I thought Russell was very good), perhaps the film may have struggled to get the funding without a ‘name’ associated with it.

    Also agree that some sub-plots weren’t really developed and resolved, especially the affair between Becky and Cal, although I liked the scene where Becky is discussing with Jenna why she’s doing it.

    The ending I thought was very well done… until they went too far on the happy ending. It was predictable that Jenna’s attitude towards her baby would change once it was born but they handled it very well, it becoming her inspiration to finally leave her husband and break off her affair.

    It would’ve been perfect had it ended with her leaving the hospital with her two waitress friends facing a somewhat uncertain future but more mature and resilient. Instead it overdoes the happy ending by letting all her dreams come true through winning the contest and Joe’s gift. Everything just came to her too easily.

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