Reel Opinions

Saturday, June 23, 2007


What a wonderful little movie this is. I admit, my feelings toward Waitress were not exactly high praise as I watched the film's first few minutes. It was competently made, yes, but it didn't seem to be going anywhere and almost seemed to be trying too hard to be cute and clever. But then, the movie started building steam, and by the end, I was in love with this quirky and wonderful little romantic comedy-drama. Writer-director and co-star Adrienne Shelly (who was tragically murdered before she got to enjoy the success of her own film) surely would have gone on to great things, as this film displays such a sure directing and storytelling hand. It is truly tragic that we will never get to know what she could have done, but at least we have this movie to remind us of the talent she held. Waitress is one of the great films of 2007.

Jenna (Keri Russell) is a woman working in a pie shop in a small Southern town who is facing a crisis. A home pregnancy test has revealed that she is pregnant after her physically abusive husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto) got her drunk one night a couple weeks ago. Jenna has dreams of running away from everything she currently knows with the help of some prize money she hopes to win in an upcoming pie contest, but this complicates matters. She knows she wants to keep the baby, but she can't share the enthusiasm of her two best friends at work (Cheryl Hines and Adrienne Shelly). When she visits the doctor's office to get confirmation, she is instantly smitten with the charming and kind new town obstetrician Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). There's an instant connection between the two, even though they are both married, and they know that their affair is wrong. All of these elements come together to create a crossroad in Jenna's life where she must decide which path she will take, and who she will take the path with.

Waitress is set in the kind of Hollywood small town that I sometimes dread when I see it pop up in movies. It looks like some kind of living nostalgia of small town life, and everyone who lives there is so colorful and quirky that you either want to hug them or strangle them. Why, this town's literally even got Andy Griffith as one of its regulars down at the local pie shop! In the wrong hands, this setting can be disastrous to a movie, and really take me out of the story. Fortunately, writer-director Shelly is in control of everything, and never lets "quirkiness" turn into "obnoxious stupidity". The movie and the characters who inhabit it have off beat charm to spare, but it never overpowers the quiet and honest story at hand. This is a simple story about a woman who is about to face great change in her life, and must decide if things will always stay the way they were, or if she will go after her dreams of leaving everything behind, despite the rather large setback of becoming pregnant. The way that the movie handles its central plot is so subtle, honest and heartfelt that it actually took a while for it to hit me just how good it actually was. The movie is much deeper than it initially appears to be, and by the end, I was drawn in.

It's hard to pinpoint just the exact reason why Waitress works so well, because it works wonderfully in so many ways. The characters are off beat and quirky, but they are also human so that we can identify with them. They talk about things that people actually talk about, and they seem to care about the same things as well. The movie is also quite often very funny. There are some clever sequences where Jenna imagines a new pie recipe tied into the current events of her life that deliver some of the bigger laughs in the film. This is a movie where the humor is drawn out of the dialogue and the characters, rather than overused sight gags or Southern-fried cliches. But through it all, it is the honesty at which the material is handled with that really struck me. Jenna is an easy heroine to identify with, because her decisions are intelligent and actually seem to make sense. She is a somewhat battered woman who is stuck in a terrible relationship with a man she doesn't love. She obviously has talent, but no one but her best friends seem to realize it. We can see why she is drawn to the new doctor in town, because not only does he realize the talent she holds for baking, but he generally seems to understand her as well. It is a wonderfully sweet relationship that the two develop, even though they know they are both married. The way the film's ending handles the outcome of their relationship is quite surprising and, in all honesty, probably the only way it could have ended.

More than anything, though, I think Waitress will be remembered for its breakthrough role by lead actress Keri Russell. Russell has had a long history of acting in the past 15 years or so, most notably playing the title character on the TV series Felicity. However, her performance as Jenna is the first time I've ever really sat up and took notice of her. She is vulnerable and sympathetic in her performance, but we can also see a lot of the strength that she brings to the character. Jenna is a likeable, yet flawed, woman who always wants to do the right thing, but doesn't always know what the right thing is. Russell's performance brings out every aspect of the character, and makes her someone we generally feel for and want to see succeed. The rest of the cast is equally strong, with other stand outs including Jeremy Sisto as Jenna's husband, and Nathan Fillion giving a very likeable performance as the town doctor. In his first big screen role in years, Andy Griffith is also wonderful as the cranky old man who develops a generally sweet and winning relationship with Jenna. His character is fortunately not treated as a joke, and he actually gets to add to the plot, with the relationship they develop playing a very large role.
If there's any fault to be found with Waitress, it is that it leaves one side of the central relationship between Jenna and Dr. Pomatter undeveloped. We can certainly see why Jenna wants to leave her old life behind, but we never get a sense that Pomatter has things so bad. The one time we do get to see his wife, she seems generally caring and nice. It kind of makes the character seem somewhat unfavorable that he would be so willing to go behind her back for Jenna. If this was developed a bit more, it probably would have made the movie even stronger. As it is, Waitress has enough charm to overcome this problem, and just really hits every other right note. This is such a subtle movie, I didn't even realize how much I loved it till it was almost half-way done. The more I think back on it, I realize that this was the film's intention. We slowly fall in love with the characters, we feel for them, and when it's over, we're happy with where they ended up.



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