Keri Russell had a certain low-key, empathetic quality as the sensitive coed on the WB series Felicity, but nothing about that whispery, earnest role indicated she could carry a movie herself, especially as a different character altogether. In Waitress she plays Jenna, an unhappily married young woman who channels her frustrations into the creation of fantastic pies, and taps a reservoir of star quality; it takes considerable charisma for an actress to likably cuss out her unborn child (she doesn't fantasize about a son or a daughter; she writes the child letters that start with "dear baby").
The film, written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly, opens with Jenna discovering this pregnancy, and despairing over the fact that it ties her to her surly, controlling husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto). She dreams of escape plans, squirreling away tip money from her titular job and soliciting advice from her two friends and co-workers, while peevishly and secretly attending doctor's appointments with Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). In the back of her mind, Jenna seems to know that keeping secrets and extra cash may not be enough; her escape is attempted through a series of half-measures. Article continues below
It's difficult to discuss the many charms of Waitress -- its humor, its sweetness, its endearing performances -- without also mentioning its awful backstory; Shelly was murdered in her apartment last fall, before this film, her last, premiered at Sundance. We lost not just a smart filmmaker but a wonderful character actress; she appears here as goofy little Dawn, maybe the least confident of the waitressing trio, getting laughs from her earnest, downtrodden worrying about men.
I haven't seen her other films, but here, at least, Shelly doesn't condescend to her creations. If anything, she makes Jenna so self-aware, so in touch with everything she hates about her husband and her life, that it's hard to picture her ever falling for a meathead like Earl, even in happier days (especially without pregnancy entering the picture until just now). Shelly's intelligence shines through many of the characters, who sometimes sound just a tiny bit savvier and New Yorkier than they should -- except for Earl, who Jeremy Sisto embodies perfectly as a toxic, inseparable mix of neediness and abuse.
Jenna's most accessible alternative to this frightening reality may be Dr. Pomatter. The kindly, stammering doctor may seem like a fantasy counterpart to Earl, but even Pomatter's long-term viability is questionable for a number of logical reasons; the romance in this film is adorable but never easy. Nathan Fillion is also a refugee from network television, so watching him with Russell is doubly heartening -- look at those sweet TV people finding solace in each other, and from audiences, too! It's another of the film's small wonders that for all of its cuteness, compact size, and small-screen vets (Andy Griffith is in it, for God's sake, as a crusty old coot named Old Joe, no less), it never feels like a sitcom pilot.
No, Waitress knows exactly where it's going, and it's not syndication. The ending has an almost impossibly fairy-tale sheen to it, but sometimes life interferes with our cynicism: in the wake of Shelly's tragic death, it's difficult to begrudge her characters their happiness. In fact, the happiness Shelly gives us -- intense, a tad unbelievable, definitely hard-won -- feels like a lovely, bittersweet parting gift.