A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, PG-13, 115 mins.
Jenna - Keri Russell / Dr. Pomater - Nathan Fillion /
Becky - Cheryl Hines / Earl - Jeremy Sisto / Old Joe - Andy Griffith / Dawn - Adrienne Shelly
Directed and written by Adrienne Shelly
“Pregnant Miserable Self Pitying Loser Pie: Lumpy oatmeal with fruitcake mashed in. Flambé of course.”
- Keri Russell in 'WAITRESS'
Keri Russell creates a character of such unrelenting adorability in WAITRESS that it all but makes you forget that she's an adulterer.
She is such a shining beacon of simple-minded sweetness and innocent, Dixie-land spirit that she's able – miraculously – to make us sympathize with her despite her poor lapses in moral judgment. I mean, this is a girl that chastises her own pregnancy as a curse, shows no initial amount of care or love for her unborn child, and willfully has an affair with the hunky town doctor, who is also married. With a different actress and a decidedly different performance, the lead in WAITRESS could easily come off as an immoral fiend.
Yet, she is played in a note-perfect performance by Russell, who wisely understands that she is in a light hearted screwball romp with a dramatic pulse. A performance too earnest and serious would have made her a heel; a performance too over-the-top and quirky and she’d be a buffoon. The key to the success of the film rests squarely on Russell’s shoulders. It is through her delectably charming and refreshingly carefree work here that allows for the rest of the film to fall into place. She sets the precedence of the film in terms of mood and tone. WAITRESS is a small town romantic dramedy that is bittersweet and blissfully entertaining. It’s indicative of how uncomplicated storytelling and well drawn, straightforward characters are often all the ingredients you need to make a film work.
The film is also bittersweet in terms of the story behind the scenes. WAITRESS was written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, an independent movie actress that began to direct films in the late 1990’s. In some ways, the film has a sad, melancholic edge in the sense that it is the last that we will ever see from her. Shelly was found murdered in her New York apartment on September 1, 2006 while working of the film’s postproduction. The film eventually was completely after her death and debuted on January 21 of this year at the Sundance Film Festival, where it received rave reviews.
For the late actress/writer/director, WAITRESS is a wonderful representation of what could have come from the talented filmmaker. The terrible tragedy of her death kind of permeates the film on subtle, discrete levels (the fact that she also plays a supporting character in the film helps with this), but it never shamelessly overshadows the proceedings. If anything, WAITRESS is a decent tribute to Shelly’s talents in terms of her innate ability to give a voice and identity to the small town atmosphere she presets in the film. Leaving WAITRESS I yearned to spend more time with its characters and setting. For a film of modest virtues and aims, that’s a large accomplishment.
Russell plays Jenna, a very poor and very unlucky-in-life southern waitress. She is trapped in an invisible emotional cage primarily through a terribly unfulfilling marriage. Her husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto, dripping with loathing, trailer park trash sliminess) is a jealous, controlling, and emotionally and physically abusive husband that is essentially the puppet master to Jenna’s life. When he wants something done, she does it. Earl is such a pathetic troglodyte that he often has to force Jenna to tell him that she loves him. The main problem Jenna has is that she feels that she is married to an irreproachably hostile man that she can never leave. She knows she’s with a caveman, but she can’t accept that all she has to do is simply leave him.
Jenna has one escape from the grind of her daily existence: making pies. When it comes to that desert, the childlike Jenna is a Yoda-like mastermind. She works at a local pie diner named, quite simply, Joe’s Pie Diner where she takes great pleasure in creating a new specialty pie every day. What’s interesting in the film is that Jenna does not go into a secret recipe stash to concoct her fantastic pies. Instead, she kind of creates them vicariously and spontaneously through the events that happen to her. Oftentimes, when times are very tough, she’ll close her eyes, enter a short-term trance, and imagine her new pie come to life. Much of the film’s offbeat and sarcastic humor originates from Jenna’s asides about her new pies. She also gives them such innocuous and to-the-point names, such as “I Hate My Husband Pie” (you take chocolate and don't sweeten it; you make it into a pudding and drown it in caramel).
Jenna also has some trusted confidants at the diner. There’s Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly), two fairly dim-witted, but decent minded and pleasant, country gals. Their lives are collectively mundane, but they act as crutches to one another. Jenna also has one other friend in Old Joe, who happens to also own the Pie Restaurant itself. He is played in an absolutely droll and endearing performance of small scale hilarity by Andy Griffith. Joe seems like one of those old codgers that always seems to frequent the same place daily and makes the lives of waitresses living hells. He is incredibly finicky about how his meals are presented to him (two glasses of water first, followed by orange juice with the pie, but never, ever any ice in the juice). He also likes to tease and taunt Jenna (one day, while reading the obituaries, he proudly proclaims, “Oh, I love living vicariously through the pain of others”). However, the one thing that keeps Jenna serving him is his subtle honesty. He seems to be the only one that perceives her unhappiness and also seems like the only one with gumption enough to tell her to fix her life up.
Jenna does want a better life. She has huge aspirations of sneaking away from Earl to a $25,000 pie-making contest, which she could easily win. She would then take the money and very proudly dump Earl’s ass. The problem is that Earl is such an omnipotently domineering presence that she barely has a chance to do anything without his knowledge. Life further throws her a bad curveball when she discovers that she is pregnant as a result of a drunken night of love making with Earl. She clearly has no desire for a baby (it prompts another one of her humorously named deserts: “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie”). At first, her incredible disdain for the life in her is vile, but perhaps she has a real reason for not wanting a baby. After all, when considering the father, the idea of a lifetime with Earl all but destroys Jenna.
Just when she thinks her life is over, a new man enters it. When she discovers that her family doctor of the last twenty years is retiring, she meets her replacement, Dr. Jim Pomatter (played very well by SERENITY’s Nathan Fillion). By small town, gynecologist standards, the doctor is a real hunk. Soon, it becomes clear to both of them that they are falling very quickly for one another. Jim is kind of shy and his initial attempts to woe Jenna are awkward. “I want to see you again. Can we meet for coffee,” he asks, to which Jenna responds, “ I can't have coffee, it's on the bad food list you gave to me. What kind of doctor are you?”
After some bumpy roadblocks, they begin a secret affair and often make love during their sessions. This prompts Jenna to envision two more creations: “I Can't Have No Affair Because It's Wrong And I Don't Want Earl To Kill Me Pie” (vanilla custard with banana; hold the banana) and "Earl Murders Me Because I'm Having An Affair Pie” (smash blackberries and raspberries into a chocolate crust). Their affair is presented with both flashes of oddball comedy (they often erupt into passionately embraced kisses, ala a cheap romance novel) and underplayed sexuality. One scene between them - with Jenna showing Jim how to make a pie - has a below-the-radar eroticism that most sex scenes fail to muster. All I know is that if Keri Russell asked me to make a pie with her, I'd be on board faster than I could say "Coconut Cream!"
Perhaps the most telling accomplishment of WAITRESS is how it defies initial expectations. Opening scenes make the characters look like one-note, TV inspired caricatures speaking with annoying southern slurs. Yet, as the film progressed the characters develop a richness and complexity. I love how the screenplay is kind of evocative and meaningful in the dialogue department. The film’s characters speak with such an economy of words that have such specific and focuses meaning. Even side characters that seem like morons are often given their moments of startling insight.
There is one exchange late in the film between Jenna and her boss that has touching sincerity to it. When she asks him if he’s happy in life, his response is kind of sublimely uncomplicated: “You ask a serious question, I'll give you a serious answer: Happy enough. I don't expect much. I don't get much, I don't give much. I generally enjoy whatever comes along. That's my answer for you, summed up for your feminine consideration. I'm happy enough.” It’s really gratifying when a film gives its perceived losers a chance to approximate real, honest emotions.
WAITRESS does not work so much on a plot level. The film kind of meanders down predictable roads. We know that Earl will find out about Jenna and the doctor and we know that there will be the eventual marital spat between them. We also know that the cranky, crusty Joe probably does not have many years left in him and that maybe…just maybe…he’ll help Jenna out of her predicament. Furthermore, we know that Jenna’s hostility towards her unborn baby will be overruled by motherly joy and happiness when she has it. Nothing that happens in WAITRESS is altogether groundbreaking from a narrative perspective.
Yet, the film is saved by its remarkably refreshing down-to-earthiness and by the way Shelly is able to dexterously balance brilliantly timed, deadpanned comedy and pratfalls with dramatic pathos. There are moments where WAITRESS is equal parts uproariously funny, sad, distressing, and heartbreaking. Full kudos needs to go to the film’s two main leads, Russell and Fillion. Russell’s work as Jena is a bit of a miracle in the sense that you develop overwhelming empathy for her despite her backstabbing affair. Russell is so dead-on with playing low-key comedy that she is further able to play very effectively later on with moments of dramatic weight. She never overplays anything; she intuitively plays Jenna with a plainness and naturalness. She is cute…beyond cute…okay…so hopelessly, unapologetically, and infectiously cute that you are willing to follow her on any path.
Again, I would gladly make a pie with her.
Then there’s Fillion, who may have the more difficult role as the other adulterer. Unlike Jenna, his spouse seems kind and considerate, making his attachment to Jenna less sympathetic. Yet, Fillion does such an exemplary job with making Dr. Jim a figure of quiet, non-threatening yearning that he too becomes hard not to like. I also appreciated how the film manages to end without a perfunctory “...and they lived happily ever after” note. The conclusion may not be satisfying to all viewers, but it nevertheless seems to ring true for the characters.
Despite some narrative unevenness, WAITRESS is an ecstatically kind-hearted, funny, and moving romantic dramady. The film has such a remarkably easy-to-like spirit and whimsicality that you are willing to overlook its faults and kind of go with it and enjoy its kind warmth and appealing characters. The film is life affirming beyond its sitcom contrivances in how big-hearted and unsentimental it is at times. It’s an atypical chick flick that neither panders to its audience nor serves them up a plate full of redundant clichés. Instead, it works directly because of its wit, humor, and extremely pleasing personas. Like a bite out of a well-made apple pie, WAITRESS is sweet, airy, flavorful, and not too demanding. Oh, and Keri Russell gives one of the best, subtle performances of the year that is marked mostly by her incredible affability, spunk, and limitless delightfulness.
And she’s just so damn cute. I'd soooo make a pie with her. No two ways about it.