Director: Adrienne Shelley
Camera: Matthew Irving
Editor: Annette Davey:
Music: Andrew Hollander:
Production designer: Ramsey Avery
Art director: Jason Baldwin;
Cast: Keri Russell, Adrienne Shelley, Cheryl Hines, Nathan Fillion, Jeremy Sisto, Andy Griffith
The Bottom Line.
There’s a lot of laugher in this film and it exudes a kind of warm, survivalist glow. But “Waitress” is not a comedy and its resolution is more poignant and compassionate than the conventionally “happy ending”. Three women face grim realities in their lives. Through their companionship and loyalty they work it out, but there’s no fairy-tale transformation at the end. The film leaves them exactly where they were when we met them in the first scene. The crucial change is in their vision of themselves. Their rewards are not material, but emotional and spiritual, and to watch these three actresses explore that journey into themselves is one of the great pleasures of the movie year.
Keri Russell as Jenna
The best thing about “Waitress” is that it defies all the current Hollywood trends. It’s funny, sexy and beautifully made, but it is also honest and pragmatic about how life and love actually works out for women who don’t have the money, the looks or the opportunity to live their dream. It’s not a film about “reaching for a dream”, it’s about building a personal reality that is comforting, challenging and fulfilling, in which you can find your joy. “Waitress” is the diametric opposite of the standard Hollywood format, which usually offers a relentless parade of glossy chick-flicks about ambitious women who juggle boy-friends while pursuing executive jobs in power-suits. That is a standard Hollywood format. Some of these flms are good, like “The Devil Wears Prada” and “The Break-Up” but most of them are awful, like the dreck in which Lindsay Lohan and others of her ilk, pout and pose endlessly.
Writer-Director Adrienne Shelley
Writer-director Adrienne Shelley has designed “Waitress” as an affectionate pastiche of ideas from classic women’s films like “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”, “Chocolat” and Jennifer Aniston’s “The Good Girl”. It tells the story of Jenna (Keri Russell) a waitress in a diner in a small country town. She’s married to Earl (Jeremy Sisto) who is an obsessively jealous control-freak. He has not yet started beating Jenna, but physical abuse will obviously be the next phase in the ongoing breakdown of their marriage. Sisto is superb in this role because he does not play Earl as a brutish villain. He’s just a selfish, emotionally stunted little boy, so afraid that he will be exposed or deserted that he becomes a bully and commands what he considers to be respect, by fear and intimidation. Sisto is smart enough to show us the charming side of him, that initially attracted Jenna, but his delineation of this insecure but aggressive man is exact.
Keri Russell Jeremy Sisto
To compensate for her empty, childless life, Jenna bakes pies: original, exotic, mouth-watering culinary triumphs that are an embodiment of her happy childhood and of her dreams for the wonderful future that she knows she might never find. Her recipes become her diary and the pies are the outlet for the emotion that she dares not show at home. Then two things happen. Jenna falls pregnant, accidentally and unhappily. She does not want to talk to her thuggish husband about it, but out of nowhere a dashing new man, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion) comes to town and Jenna becomes his favourite patient. All the kindness and understanding that Jenna craves, but does not get from her husband, she finds in the doctor and that is both a great joy and a dangerous temptation.
Jenna also hears of a national pie-baking competition, which, if she wins it, will give her the money she needs to escape from her oppressive marriage. As you can see, the basic ingredients of that story are as banal and familiar as eggs, butter and flour, but the secret of any pie is the filling and the filling for this pie is delicious. There are two other characters who work in the diner with Jenna and they are like a comic Greek chorus to her story. Becky (Cheryl Hines) is a brassy, tough-talking broad who is married to a much older man who suffered a stroke and is now an invalid in a wheel-chair, for whom everything must be done. It’s a tough life and Becky looks dutifully after her sad husband but she also looks after herself with a series of sexy affairs. Then there’s Dawn (Adrienne Shelly) who has not a shred of self-confidence. She’s a dowdy mouse of a woman and the only man who has ever paid her any romantic attention is one she calls “The Stalker Elf”. Their emotional woes form a tragic-comic echo to Jenna’s baby crisis and the solidarity of their off-beat friendship becomes the central focus of the film.
Adrienne Shelley Andy Griffith
There is another character who struck me as a stroke of writing genius. Old Joe is the grumpy old man who owns the diner in which the women work. He is rich and cranky, with a string of bitter divorces behind him. He eats at the diner every day and it doesn’t take him long to figure what is going on in Jenna’s life. He recognises her frustration and fear that she is facing a life filled only with anger and loss. She’s about to make all the same mistakes that Old Joe made in his own life and, in his gruff, rude way he decides to set Jenna straight. He becomes a bad-tempered, fairy-godfather figure in a performance that puts the whole film on a different level. Old Joe is played by 81-year old veteran Andy Griffith, a much-loved actor who became something of a TV legend in America. He embodied all the old-fashioned American values, and he brings to this film a earthy resonance and sarcastic charm that are the perfect finishing touch.
Nathan Fillion as Dr Pomatter
“Waitress” is an unabashedly sentimental and, on the face of it, old-fashioned story, but when you look more closely it is very skilfully constructed. It’s set exclusively in the feminine world of kitchens, food, babies and pregnancy, but it’s also about adultery, lies and deception and it offers no glib happy endings. People die, hearts are broken, relationships fail and no-one gets to escape from that world. When the film ends all these three women are exactly where they were when we met them in the first scene – They’re in a diner waiting on tables. There have been changes, some of them very painful but none of them has “escaped” into a transfigured life in a brave new world where women can be the boss. Like Dorothy, the little girl from “The Wizard of Oz”, they’ve returned to their own backyard. They must first find their happiness in the changes within themselves, in their altered vision of themselves and their own potential. Their rewards are not material, but emotional and spiritual, and that puts Adrienne Shelley’s film stands a great tradition of small-town, hearts-and-minds Americana, warm and optimistic, full of dreams but also of cold, harsh reality. It’s the America you see in the poems of Robert Frost and the illustrations of Norman Rockwell, but it is infused with the spirit of today.
I wonder whether, as we head into the awards season, the same voters who put “Little Miss Sunshine” into the mainstream awards events last year, will put Kerry Russell, Andy Griffith and the movie into the awards arena where they all deserve to be. That would be a great but also melancholy tribute to the talent of Adrienne Shelley, who wrote, directed and acted in the film. She had just completed the final cut of the film when she was brutally murdered in her New York apartment, just three months before “Waitress” had its acclaimed premiere screening at the Sundance Film Festival. Her killer was an unemployed Puerto Rican immigrant who followed her home and killed her for a few dollars and her rings. She ended not only a life but a talent that could, on the strength of this film, have become truly remarkable.