The title character in Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress is a marvel. Kind, talented, and cute as a button, Jenna (Keri Russell) is such a catch that her profoundly unhappy existence is difficult to believe. Surely, we think, someone like her need not slave away in a dead-end job and bide her time in a miserable marriage — and that is precisely the point of this gentle, lovely film. A peripheral character gives our protagonist the simplest advice in the world, and the only advice she will ever need: “Make the right choices. Start fresh. It’s never too late.”
Waitress is filled with the sorts of quirks and gimmicks that seem insufferably precious on paper, but that work precisely because the film returns time and again to this small but vital kernel of truth. We look at Jenna, her awful, self-absorbed, abusive husband (Jeremy Sisto), her endless daydreams (she lives vicariously through her elaborate, “Biblically good” pie concoctions, which bear such names as “Bad Baby Pie” and “I Hate My Husband Pie”), and her desperate affair with her hunky new gynecologist (Nathan Fillion), and see the result of a string of tragic, unnecessary choices, which makes her abiding patience all the more frustrating – I wanted to shout at the screen, tell her to stand up for herself, kick her husband in the balls, and move on. The minor genius of the film is in the way it evokes this sort of frustration alongside a sympathetic understanding of the obstacles and insecurities that have trapped Jenna here for so long.
Shelly, who wrote, directed, and appears as one of Jenna’s put-upon co-workers, maintains a wry, modest tone that belies some of her self-consciously “indie” conceits. She doesn’t try to get by on mere cleverness, as some of her contemporaries have done; to the extent there are gimmicks, they resonate against the characters. It’s easy to roll your eyes at Shelly’s pie-as-a-metaphor-for-life device in the abstract, but much harder when it’s brought to life with Russell’s melancholy delivery and Jenna’s heartbreaking earnestness. Even when characters act in ways that are at best implausible and at worst insane, Shelly somehow manages to make it sweet, or funny, or improbably moving. Damned if I didn’t well up every time Jenna leaped on Fillion’s poor Dr. Pomatter in an outpouring of passion that’s been festering inside of her for God knows how long.
Keri Russell is a revelation. The role will be compared to Jennifer Aniston’s in Miguel Arteta’s vaguely similar The Good Girl, but while I never quite bought Aniston as a depressed, desperate store clerk – she is too beautiful and iconic a figure, and her performance never overcame that – the similarly radiant Russell had me from the first frame. I would give her an Oscar just for the way she blurts out “un-thank you” after insisting that she didn’t want to be congratulated on her pregnancy and receiving a dutiful “un-congratulations” from Pomatter. She didn’t just make me like Jenna, or pity her; I was her friend and ally, ready to defend her from the world. Maybe part of the reason I liked some of Shelly’s sillier screenwriting flourishes is that Russell manages to cut through them so effortlessly. It’s easier to be clever when you can hang everything on a performance this profound and true.
Shelly tests our patience — Jenna takes so much abuse without a peep that I started flashing back to The Passion of the Christ – but ultimately rewards it with a resolution that’s about as satisfying as we could have hoped. (The turning point, which I won’t describe here, is just perfect.) Andy Griffith, charming in his first prominent appearance since the cancellation of Matlock, even gets to play a big role in the way things turn out. Waitress dispenses the requisite comeuppances and ends on a nice grace note, upbeat and sweet without being too treacly. This is the kind of movie that could build formidable word-of-mouth by sending people out of the theater on a high.
The film could have packed more a punch had Shelly (who died tragically last November) not stylized the plot quite as much as she did – I wound up wishing, for example, that the awful husband hadn’t been quite so cartoonishly awful, though I liked Jeremy Sisto’s slimy, uncompromising performance; Eddie Jemison’s ridiculous poetry-quoting suitor is also a little much, even if references to him as a “Mad Stalking Elf” never got old. But the movie finds a real hook in Jenna, and a real elegance in its simple, direct message: take look at the choices you’ve made, and start making the right ones. Start fresh. It’s never too late.