Movie Review: Waitress
By Shane Jenkins
May 31, 2007
When we last saw Keri Russell, a bomb had exploded in her brain, causing her eyes to go all loco, as she died in Tom Cruise's arms in Mission: Impossible III. There are somewhat fewer exploding brains in her latest movie, Waitress, the slight but charming story of a woman's life in pies.
I was trying to place it while watching the film, when it finally hit me - Waitress resembles nothing so much as Northern Exposure: The Movie. If you skipped that moment of early '90s cultural zeitgeist, let me get you caught up. Northern Exposure was a quirky television dramedy that centered around the Alaskan town of Cicely. A neurotic young doctor moves to town and falls in love with a local girl, while a supporting cast of character actors have zany problems and fall in and out of love. It was an entertaining bit of TV.
Waitress is also an entertaining piece of TV; it just happens to be on celluloid.
Instead of Alaska, Waitress explores the ins and outs of a small town in the deep South, and particularly the comings and goings of the staff and patrons of Joe's "pie diner," a joint that serves all manner of food in the form of pies. Russell is Jenna, one of a trio of waitresses (along with Curb Your Enthusiasm's Cheryl Hines and writer/director Adrienne Shelly) who serve up pies, gossip, and advice with equal gusto. They have quirky customers like Joe (Andy Griffith, looking pretty fly for a black-and-white guy), who reads his horoscopes aloud and has very specific needs as the town's pie gourmand.
The film's strongest scenes take place at the diner. The rapport between the waitresses is spot-on, with Hines in particular delivering her lines with a bracing bit of world-weariness that plays nicely off of the other two sweeter characters. Shelly, perhaps taking a cue from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's Good Will Hunting, wrote a role for herself that maybe no one else could have written, allowing her to showcase her particular strengths as a character actor. Hiding behind some Coke rims that do a poor job of obscuring her beauty, her character, Dawn, is maybe the easiest to fall in love with. She has an odd, lilting cadence to her speech that makes her sound, to borrow from another Southern girl, not a girl, but not yet a woman.
This leaves Russell. Exploding brain scene aside, I'm not very familiar with her work, never having seen her star-making TV show Felicity (though, through pop culture osmosis, I remember that she got a haircut and it was a big deal for some reason). So it was a pleasant surprise, at least to me, that she pulls off this role so nicely. Jenna's a bit of a one-dimensional character. She's almost a saint, creating fabulous new pies, and married to creep-in-need-of-a-razor Jeremy Sisto. Russell brings a spark of mischievousness to Jenna, who could have easily been a Pollyannic bore. In the opening scene, she discovers she's pregnant, and is not thrilled about it, already having one baby (her weirdly infantile husband, Earl) in her life. As she tries to imagine how to ditch Earl and make enough money to enter a pie contest, she must deal with the new doctor in town.
If you're a fan of Serenity or Slither (and you should be!), then you know Nathan Fillion, the wise-cracking, cool-headed Han Solo-esque hero of those movies. Fillion was on the fast-track to being the next Bruce Campbell, and may still get there, but as Jenna's doctor he brings something more to the table than you might expect from his B-movie past. His Dr. Pomatter is kind of a dork. A lovable dork, sure, but a dork nonetheless. He doesn't seem to be very good at his job, and he stutters and stammers in ways that would make even Hugh Grant and Woody Allen shake their heads with pity. He falls almost instantly in love with Jenna, despite being married to a pretty young doctor who clearly dotes on him. Jenna returns his affections, and soon they are carrying on an affair that surely must violate some part of the Hippocratic Oath.
And that's about it for the plot. If you've watched enough TV, you should have a pretty good idea how things will end up (the resolution of Joe's story is particularly sitcom-worthy). It doesn't matter, though; Waitress is mostly about the little things. A surly cook's brief moment of redemption. A lovely, quiet bus stop conversation. The pies. Those delicious, miraculous pies.
I guess every review of Waitress must make mention of Shelly's untimely death (she was murdered last year by an irate construction worker), which casts a pall over this mostly sunny, innocuous movie. But she obviously poured a lot of herself into the film, infusing it with a sharp eye for tiny details and plenty of charm. If Waitress is a pie, it's a sour cherry one - mostly sweet, and just a little tart - and we are fortunate that Shelly baked up this treat for us to remember her by.