Waitress is a sweetly hopeful and smartly non-judgmental fable about loving ourselves enough to recognize what is worth lavishing our affection upon. Featuring a luminous and slightly snarky Keri Russell of Felicity fame, the film is a love story that allows its flawed characters to grow, and its ensemble cast to shine. Though it borders on treacle on occasion, it never quite crosses the line, and if the viewer is willing to live in a world that feels almost-but-not-quite lived-in, this little movie is deliciously rewarding. I first saw it in the theater on its wide release, after it took the Sundance Festival by storm, and have never forgotten it. Years later, I could still remember most of the plot and recognize actors I hadn’t seen in anything since. It stuck with me. Rewatching it now, I’m struck by how clever and quiet it is, and how gently it treats all the characters, giving even the most despicable among them enough pathos to keep anyone from emerging as a complete villain.
The Basic Plot: A small town waitress at a pie diner, Jenna (Keri Russell) is married to a frighteningly self-obsessed husband, and desperate to get away. She dreams of entering one of her delicious pie recipes in a contest and using the prize money to escape. Unfortunately, she discovers she’s pregnant. Not willing to opt for an abortion, and unable to think of what else she can do, she decides to keep the baby even though it means she will be trapped. Change comes in the form of her handsome OB/Gyn played by Nathan Fillion, with whom she begins a passionate, hysterically funny affair, despite the fact that he is also married. Love, and the help of the diner’s fellow waitresses (Adrienne Shelly and Cheryl Hines), guide her toward independence. The diner’s wonderfully cranky owner (Andy Griffith) also pushes her to discover herself.
The film is at turns silly, comic, romantic, sexy, sad and even disturbing, just like life. Using pies as metaphors for the character’s emotions, it never loses the feeling of a fairy tale, with all the attendant misery and happiness.That none of Jenna’s decisions come without cost, but that this is also no Greek tragedy, is one of the things I like best about it. It seduces you by staying on the rosy border of reality.
Moments to Watch For: Any of Jenna’s conversations with Joe, the diner’s owner. Andy Griffith brings the perfect mixture of crabbiness and gentle twinkling affection to his performance, giving the otherwise somewhat idyllic diner a tart dose of humorous reality. Anyone who has ever served customers will recognize the interaction between the harried, miserable waitress and the blustery customer who softens when he realizes her distress is greater than his own. Her patience wins him, and us, over. My favorite exchange features Joe describing the perfect beauty of Jenna’s chocolate strawberry pie, as though he is rhapsodizing about a lover. Plus, it’s Andy Griffith!
Actors to Love: Keri Russell should have been on every smart director’s A-list after this movie, and it says something sad about the state of movies today that she wasn’t. The former star of Felicity‘s performance is sharply sarcastic, cautiously hopeful, and bottomlessly sad, all that the same time. She’s also deeply sexy, even when playing a woman who is seven months pregnant. Witness her voracious expression in the scene where she waits to see her lover/doctor, holding a “Naughty Pumpkin Pie.” She looks positively predatory. A few scenes later, looking into the face of her child for the first time, she masterfully displays trepidation, then wonder, then fierce protectiveness. The performance makes the audience root for a character who is sometimes too passive, and frequently sinful. We want to see Jenna thrive.
If Keri Russell gives the performance of her career here, Nathan Fillion must also hold his own, or we’ll never believe their whirlwind romance. This is no simple task; his character, as a married doctor sleeping with his also-married patient, is inherently unsympathetic, especially as we are never given a reason for his infidelity. Fillion portrays him perfectly. In the office, he is scattered and overwhelmed, but when it comes to his feelings for Jenna, his confidence and openness win her over, sending her self-worth upward. We get the sense that this normally-good man is quietly, passively unhappy, not for the same reasons that Jenna is, but with the same results. Their scenes together crackle with humor and attraction, and we find ourselves rooting for their success, despite the obstacles. Fillion’s natural charm and self-effacing performance, his willingness to portray a man both ideal and flawed, ground the character in reality.
Finally, no review of Waitress can really be complete without a mention of Adrienne Shelly, its director. She plays Dawn, one of the other waitresses at the pie shop. Her performance is sweet, natural and unshowy. It would be a lovely, memorable role under any circumstances, but watching it is tinged with bittersweet when you know that Shelly was murdered shortly after completing the film. She never got to see its success. This makes her little film both more beautiful, and her genuine ability all the more heartbreaking.
Waitress is no Hollywood blockbuster, and Shelly was no auteur. It has uneven moments, and borders on too sweet for its own good (but gently strays away from anything absolutely saccharin). It’s a funny, heart-felt small film about how love, particularly the love we have for people outside ourselves, can transform us from someone ordinary to someone whose gifts shine for the first time. Check it out and let me know what you think!