Every year at Sundance there’s always one bittersweet comedy that emerges to become a gem on the critics’ year end lists; last year it was Little Miss Sunshine and this year it seems to be Waitress. Of course, the bittersweet this time is a little bit more bitter because of the untimely death of writer/director Adrienne Shelly just a couple of months before the movie’s Sundance debut. But someone once said something to the effect of, “Go out with style,” and on this point Shelly can rest happily.
Waitress is about pie cook extraordinaire Jenna (Keri Russell), who works as a, you know, at a coffee and pie shop in a sleepy small town. She’s married to Earl (Jeremy Sisto), a Type-A jerk who believes in the literal interpretation of the vow love, honour and obey (especially that last one). To her horror, Jenna learns that she’s pregnant, which seriously upsets her plans to use a pie-baking contest as a context to run away from Earl. On the upside though is Jenna’s love affair with her handsome Doctor named Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), but he’s married and her doctor so while the relationship is emotionally fulfilling its not exactly something Jenna can build a life on. The story follows her trials and tribulations as she turns her life’s turbulence into delight confectionary concoctions.
Like Little Miss Sunshine, Waitress is about the humour in the way people lead sad lives and this extends beyond lonely, pregnant and depressed (her words) Jenna. Bizarrely, as much as the movie seems to dump on small town life it is also a kind of affirmation of it. The devil you know I guess. You know that surly old Joe that runs the local diner is all bark, you know your kindly old doctor’s favourite pie because you’ve seen her since you were a child and you know your friends will always be there to support you just like they always have. The nameless small town is almost like the after-school special version of Mayberry (which is appropriate given the fact that Andy Griffith co-stars) and that fact breeds a kind of familiarity with the town and its citizenry.
Keri Russell is literally luminous on screen, she shines in every scene she’s in and plays the trials of Jenna with equal parts pathos and sardonic wit. And what can be said about Nathan Fillion except that this guy should be a bigger star than he is. Fillion has the leading man presence of Harrison Ford and George Clooney and in Waitress he proves that he can play the romantic lead as well as he can captain a spaceship. Russell and Fillion have great chemistry and you feel it even though there only a couple of scenes where they are actually, physically romantic.
The thing that keeps Waitress from achieving Little Miss Sunshine levels of greatness is its cutesy, neatly packaged ending and the way the character of Earl is handled. I get it, Earl’s supposed to be a toad, the scenes of him constantly picking up Jenna with horn blazing was hysterical, but making his wife promise that she wouldn’t love the baby more than him and meaning it was stretching things a little. It’s the same problem as Billy Zane’s character from Titanic; of course Leo DiCaprio’s poor boy artist is going to look good against the pistol-packing, jealousy prone money whore. In fact I would argue, and this isn’t spoiling anything, that it’s a good thing that Waitress’ Earl didn’t end up like the Dixie Chicks’ Earl.
Still, Waitress is a wonderful slice of movie pie with a delightful cast and sure to offer more nourishment then many of the blockbusters already out or pending release. Always assuming, of course, if you can find it playing in a theatre near you.