Written and Directed by Adrienne Shelley
The meta-story on Waitress has at times overshadowed the actual film. Writer-director Adrienne Shelley labored for years as an actress in TV and in independent films, and upon completion of her first feature, was killed before it could be released. It played at film festivals and became a major audience hit, and was highly praised by critics who, at times I think, were honoring the slain filmmaker more than the film.
Waitress is that rarest of beasts, a genuinely independent production that nonetheless has a genuine commercial feel. The titular character is Jenna (Keri Russell), stuck in a loveless and at times emotionally and physically abusive marriage, but with a true genius for pie-making. As the film opens, her two friends Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Shelley herself) are counseling her through a home pregnancy test. Yep, she's pregnant, and the film will follow her throughout her pregnancy as she meets the handsome Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion) and struggles to get away from her husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto).
Shelley is attempting something really remarkable here, in that she pitches the tone of this film at something like a sitcom, often with cliched characters and with overly-broad performances. (The southern accents, in particular, tend to be way overdone, almost cartoony -- only Sisto sounds like a realistic Southerner to me.) The film aims to be light, airy, disconnected from reality, but whenever Earl shows up honking his horn and demanding that Jenna come back to him, relinquishing all of her hard-won independence, the fluff seems all the more insubstantial. The baby, as it happens, was conceived in a form of rape -- Jenna's husband got her really drunk and forced himself on her. Later, he'll spend several scenes demanding, nearly forcing, her to give her body to him for his pleasure.
If the relationship with the husband is a bit off tonally, Jenna's budding romance with Dr. Pomatter is much better. He comes into her life unexpectedly, temporarily replacing her old doctor, now semiretired, but their obvious feelings for one another grow stronger. The film doesn't delay our gratification too long -- after two or three scenes together, Pomatter and Jenna are having an affair (both are married), and while it seems that the two will end up together at the end, Shelley has some other things in mind....
The film is filled with several romantic subplots involving minor characters, most of which are choreographed from a fair distance, but have a certain charm nonetheless. While this film seems to cry out for a ninety-minute runtime and seems a big sluggish at an hour forty-five, the extra running time gives Shelley time to establish several characters as clear supporting players, and charting the relationships is one of the pleasures of the film. My favorite of the supporting players is Old Joe, played by Andy Griffith himself, a irascible old man who owns several local businesses including the pie shop where Jenna works and most of the action takes place, but who is more than he seems at first.
Overall, this film is trying to be like one of Jenna's pies -- delectable, airy, wonderfully constructed out of disparate elements. But the ending left a sort of saccharine taste in my mouth; I don't think the characters earn the ending they get, and the happiness seems tacked on. Granted that in any realistic telling of this story Jenna would end up shackled in a hopeless situation, but the way in which Shelley gets Jenna out is unfair to the story she's telling. The film is more like cotton candy than a delectable pie -- all sweetness and insubstantiality, with nothing holding it together.
Waitress is a nice date movie, and the Jenna deserves her happy ending even if the film doesn't, but in the end it's a movie that seems to be always pulled in fifteen directions. Is it light, or dark, happy, or bittersweet, feminist, or traditional, a comedy, or a tragedy? This feels more like a trial run for the much-superior Juno to me than anything else. See it for the performances and the comedy, but don't expect the kind of genius that the film festival reviews might have led you to expect.