It comes as no surprise that the late Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress was a breakout hit at Sundance this year. It’s the kind of sly, witty independent gem that rolls through every few years, lighting up crowds and forcing men to admit they were wrong when they thought they were being dragged to another chick flick. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that it could be a sleeper hit with good word-of-mouth and fanfare upon a wider release.
Keri Russell is Jenna, a thirty-something whose only pleasure in life comes from making pies at the local shop. She spends days and nights trying to come up with intriguing combinations of ingredients. Her husband, Earl (Sisto), is a jealous, overbearing wreck and even physically abuses her. Her co-workers, Becky (Hines) and Dawn (Shelly), encourage her to get a divorce and move on, but things have gotten complicated: Jenna is pregnant. She doesn’t want the child, but refuses to get an abortion. Because of the pregnancy, she begins to regularly see Dr. Pomatter (Fillion), the new stud doctor in town who is also married. The two begin a behind-the-scenes relationship that, along with a local pie-baking contest, makes Jenna rethink her life.
Shelly’s script has plenty of fantastic moments and wisely avoids becoming a bloated sitcom. Each character is well-developed and memorable, with the kind of habits and tics we notice in everyday life. The character of Old Joe (brilliantly played by Andy Griffith) could have easily been a throwaway cliché, but Shelly finds a way to come full circle and utilize the character for true emotion. It is the bond we feel with these people that ultimately separates Waitress from the other independents that come down the line each year. For once, we care, and that’s a testament to the screenplay and performances.
Speaking of performances, Keri Russell is absolutely superb here. Her constant uncertainty is palpable and convincing, and she’s so darn likable. She is given a full spectrum of feelings to convey, not to mention some demanding comic timing. She is spot on and carries the film throughout. All of the supporting work is marvelous, particularly Nathan Fillion as the deadpan and strange Dr. Pomatter. His evolution from nervous klutz to loving male lead is well done. Comic relief comes steadily from Hines, Shelly, Griffith, and Eddie Jemison, the wonderful character actor who plays Dawn’s forced-upon love interest. Shelly herself is memorable as the dorky Dawn.
Waitress, unfortunately, is the final work of Adrienne Shelly, who was murdered in her New York apartment complex late last year. Everyone involved has communicated the bittersweet nature in the way the film has already achieved success. In that respect, Waitress should, and will, be the celebration of the life of a gifted screenwriter and director.
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Length: 104 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, language and thematic elements.
Theatrical Release: January 21, 2007 (Sundance Film Festival) / May 2, 2007 (Limited)
Directed by: Adrienne Shelly
Written by: Adrienne Shelly
Cast: Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Cheryl Hines, Adrienne Shelly, Jeremy Sisto, Andy Griffith