*A guest review today, from Nick Schager, of Slant Magazine
Regrettably but inevitably, Waitress's tenacious optimism is partially offset by the recent, tragic murder of its writer/director/co-star Adrienne Shelly, an actress who made her name in Hal Hartley's early indies and, with this funny, charming slice of Southern country life, appears to have found her voice as a filmmaker. However, the bittersweetness that accompanies the film's arrival is, coincidentally, in tune with its story's miserable protagonist, a young, pretty waitress at Joe's Pie Diner named Jenna (Keri Russell). Stuck in a loveless marriage to her controlling, abusive husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto), and prevented from running away by a lack of cash, Jenna is a forlorn woman who sees dreams of a bright future dissipating before her eyes. To cope, she pours all of her grief, longing and sadness for happier times-gone-by into her unique homemade pies, which – described, at one point, as "biblically good" – are concocted with an array of inventively combined ingredients, and named after the moods that inspired them (such as her "I Hate My Husband Pie" and "Falling in Love Pie").
Tending to her louse of a spouse, wasting time gabbing in the diner bathroom with co-workers Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Shelly), and waiting on outspoken, lewd diner proprietor Old Joe (a consistently hilarious Andy Griffith) while decked out in her '50s-style blue-and-white uniform – Jenna's life is, at the outset, in a rut. Waitress is too, as its early attempts at establishing a mood are a tad shaky, vacillating unevenly between cutesiness and seriousness. That balancing act becomes much smoother, however, once Jenna – after learning that she's pregnant with Earl's baby thanks to an ill-advised drunken roll in the hay – goes to see her OBGYN and finds, to her surprise, that her lifelong doctor has suddenly semi-retired and been replaced by attractive Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). Though she's been stashing money around the house for an eventual escape, Jenna makes clear to the married Pomatter that, while she isn't thrilled about the baby (who'll further tie her down), she nonetheless intends to keep it. Her plan to disappear into the night, however, is complicated by the almost immediate and overwhelming mutual attraction that blossoms between doc and patient.
Wrapped snugly in warm, rich hues, the ensuing extramarital romance between Jenna and Pomatter, as well as her concurrent dilemma over how to flee her station in life, aren't scenarios that reinvent the wheel. Yet Shelly's low-key direction has a tenderness that proves endearing, in part because it's wedded to a sharp sense of humor that springs not from self-conscious cleverness but from well-drawn characters and situations. Despite being occasionally sitcom-ish and syrupy, Waitress takes its small-town folk and their up-and-down emotions seriously, and as a result never seems as if it's maliciously poking fun at their foibles and failings even when, as with Dawn's nerdy, spontaneous poetry-spouting beau Ogie (Eddie Jemison), its peripheral players border on being caricatures. That same restraint and respect even extends to Earl, whose nasty, domineering maliciousness is shrewdly complicated (if never absolved) by a brief, offhand bedtime display of sincere affection for his wife, a moment that comes to epitomize the film's spirit of generosity.
Some corny narration (cast as Jenna's letter to her unborn child) ups the sap quotient, while a frustrating lack of context (what state are we in? What year is it?) leaves the proceedings feeling a bit hollow. Russell, however, delicately maintains Waitress' mixture of aching drama and bubbly comedy. In a breakthrough big-screen performance, the former Felicity star is nothing short of enchanting, in part because she refuses to paint Jenna with broad, simple brushstrokes. Sadness and resentment are entrenched in her eyes but so, too, is a resolve, a defiant strength (completely devoid of self-pity) that helps counteract the defeatism that so often presents itself as an easy, alluring option. As with Fillion's bumbling but confident, cheating but loyal Pomatter, Jenna is filled with contradictions that Russell (and the film) wisely never attempts to fully reconcile, instead recognizing the inherent imperfections and inconsistencies of human nature. And in a centerpiece sequence in which – having just taken the monumental first step toward independence – Jenna segues from a look of mouth-agape astonishment to grinning elation, she also proves to be, just like her mouthwatering pies, something close to irresistible.