May 31, 2007

Movie Review: Waitress

Posted in Movies at 11:49 pm by Calico Jack

There’s a fine line between sweet and syrupy, between dramatic and melodramatic. Many films try for one or the other and fail miserably; fewer still attempt both. It’s simply too hard to capture opposite ends of the emotional spectrum without coming across as cloying or heavy-handed. Waitress, the final film from writer-director Adrienne Kelly (murdered in her apartment last November) wants to have its cake — well, pie — and eat it too; but it succeeds admirably in almost every regard, especially with the inspired casting of Keri Russell as a quirky woman searching for happiness but unable to take the steps necessary to break free of her Southern small-town chains.

Russell sparkles as Jenna, a waitress in a roadside pie diner who, while not serving grumpy clients and dealing with an overbearing cook, spends her time concocting new pie recipes, each based on Jenna’s mood at the time. With wonderfully whimsical titles like “I Hate My Husband Pie,” Jenna’s treats are the toast of the town — to everyone except her insensitive lout of a husband, that is. Earl, played with smarmy idiocy by Jeremy Sisto, is a classic example of an abusive spouse: he refuses to let Jenna keep any of her earnings, claiming that as long as she has clothes on her back and a roof over her head, what need has she for money? Even when Jenna asks to enter a statewide pie contest, with a grand prize of $25,000, Earl flatly turns her down: her pies are decent, he tells her, but not worthy of any special recognition.

Complicating Jenna’s already troubled life is the discovery that she’s pregnant, due to an ill-advised drunken encounter with her husband six weeks prior. Her coworkers, sassy Becky (Cheryl Hines) and insecure Dawn (Adrienne Shelly herself) are rather supportive, but Jenna can’t quite muster enough courage to tell her husband the not-so-good news. For her, a pregnancy is merely an obstacle in the way of her dreams of leaving her controlling husband and opening up her own pie diner. A trip to the local OB/GYN confirms that yes, a baby is on its way; but handsome Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), newly arrived to take over the practice from Jenna’s retired gynecologist, provides some much-needed distraction from her rather sad, constrictive life. Even so, her latest creations have such titles as “Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie,” “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie,” and “Baby Screaming Its Head Off in the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie,” giving some indication as to Jenna’s emotional state — as well as her gift for self-deprecation. Innocent visits with the doctor quickly turn into something more, and soon two unhappily married people are caught up in a passionate affair. But the baby’s still coming, Earl is as alternately needy and obsessive as ever, and Dr. Pomatter keeps urging her to leave her husband — although he still wears a ring on his finger.

It takes quite a bit of finesse to get the audience to sympathize with two characters who are cheating on their spouses, no matter how difficult their home lives may be. But Russell makes Jenna so likable, so warm-hearted, and Earl is such an abusive husband that the distasteful affair becomes a bit more palatable, if not exactly excusable. Fillion is charming in that awkward nice-guy sort of way, and never comes across as anything other than a truly caring person who wants nothing more than to see Jenna happy. And Jenna herself is spunky and courageous: she’s afraid that she won’t be a good mother, and she can’t stand the father of her unborn child, but the thought of getting an abortion never once crosses her mind. “I respect this little baby’s right to thrive,” she tells a friend. And a post-birth scene brings that statement home in a powerful way, as Jenna’s first viewing of her baby overwhelms her with love and awe.

The one flaw that Waitress has lies with Dr. Pomatter: it’s never clearly stated why his home life is so miserable that he feels the need to plunge headlong into an affair with a pregnant, married woman. In fact, all signs point to his rather idyllic existence as a small-town doctor. Nonetheless, this is a minor quibble considering how deftly Shelly handles everything else. Special mention must be given to Andy Griffith, having the time of his life playing Old Joe, the owner of the pie diner and a cantankerous customer who might just have a bit of wisdom to offer Jenna along the way.

Waitress is a darling little film tinged with both genuine humor and sadness. It strikes a perfect balance between drama and comedy, and never loses sight of its message: that happiness comes not just through love, but also through sacrifice. Russell might very well be an early favorite for a Best Actress nomination, and Nathan Fillion should be on everyone’s list of up-and-coming stars after this performance. Waitress is playing in limited release, but make an effort to catch this one before it leaves theaters. There hasn’t been a more uplifting film released all year.

A-.

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