Appellate Judge Tom Becker rates this film a 3.14159.
"I don't need no baby. I don't want no trouble. I just want to make
pies. That's all I want to do, make pies."
Waitress, a bittersweet little story of a hard-luck woman who loves making pies, is shrouded with a sense of melancholy.
Adrienne Shelly, who wrote, directed, and co-starred in the film, was an actress who had appeared in a number of independent films since the late 1980s. Her credits include The Unbelievable Truth and Factotum. Waitress was her third feature as a director. In November, 2006, she was murdered by a construction worker during an altercation in the building where she had an office, leaving behind a husband and a 3-year-old daughter.
And this film.
Waitress premiered at Sundance in January 2007 and played the festival circuit before receiving a national release in May. Now, Fox gives us a respectful and respectable DVD.
Facts of the Case
Jenna (Keri Russell, Felicity) is a waitress in a pie diner in the South. She also creates pies, wonderful, inventive confections, and sometimes works out her problems by channeling her dreams and frustrations into her work.
And Jenna has problems. She's in a stifling marriage to the needy and controlling Earl (Jeremy Sisto, Six Feet Under), and just as she's making plans to get away, she finds out she's pregnant. She shares this news with her fellow waitresses but decides not to tell Earl.
Her obstetrician, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion, Serenity), is new in town, and a bit taken aback by Jenna's hard-nosed stance (yes, she's having the baby, but she's not happy about it, so please don't congratulate her). Jenna's not too comfortable with Dr. Pomatter either; there's a definite tension between the two of them. And Jenna has enough tension in her life right now.
But Jenna finds herself getting closer to the married doctor, and their "special friendship" brightens her life in more ways than she imagined.
Waitress is a sweet-natured little movie. When it's not being self-consciously quirky, it hits its notes with a natural assurance and wit often missing in both independent and mainstream features.
Keri Russell is very good as the disenchanted-but-still-open-to-suggestion Jenna. Her best scenes are her early ones with the dense but dangerous Earl. Earl, as written, is more a self-righteous male artifact than a fully formed character, selfish, clingy, insecure, and vaguely threatening, but Sisto keeps him just to the left of pathetic and makes him not wholly unbelievable. Russell plays her scenes with him in low-key Stepford Wife-mode, only tipping her hand that he repulses her when he is out of sight. These two play off each other like long-time partners, catching the rhythms and idiosyncrasies in Shelly's writing.
Unfortunately, much of the film is too idiosyncratic, at times to the point of being precious. Set in an unspecified Southern locale (a reference to Biloxi suggests Mississippi, but it's never stated) and an indeterminate time (we know it's contemporary by the look of the cars), Shelly creates a world that is part imagination and part TV sitcom.
At the pie diner, every dish they serve is pie and every pie is homemade. Just as you're starting to accept that such a place might exist, Dr. Pomatter, who's from Connecticut, comes along and announces there was a pie diner in the town where he grew up. The second pie diner is mentioned so the doctor can recall a story that helps explain his attraction to Jenna, and while the story is a nice piece of writing, it's ultimately an unnecessary and clumsy bit of exposition.
The doctor himself is a strange invention. Puppy-dog cute and awkward as a high school boy taking his first gym shower, he uses words like "unearthly," "sensual," and "biblically good" to describe Jenna's pies. He's non-threatening and non-aggressive and pretty much willing to go along with whatever Jenna wants—basically, every woman's fantasy, but somewhat nondescript as an individual.
Unlike the other characters, such as hillbilly bully Earl, Dr. Pomatter isn't given an evocative first name. Besides the slightly exotic Jenna, the waitresses are wisecracking floozy Becky (Cheryl Hines, Curb Your Enthusiasm) and dim Dawn (Adrienne Shelly); pie-diner manager Mel…er, sorry, Cal; Dawn's awkward suitor, Ogie; and the owner of Joe's Pie Diner, and apparently every other business in this rural retreat, Old Joe (Andy Griffith, A Face in the Crowd), whose cantankerousness is such a transparent cover for his heart o' gold that we're actually shocked when a character feels it's necessary to point out that he's really a good guy.
That this story and these characters come together credibly and enjoyably is a testament to both Shelly and the cast she assembled. However derivative its parts might be, Waitress is presented with such a clear-eyed honesty and sincerity that it all feels somehow fresh. Shelly makes some interesting choices, and her view is not post-adolescent picture-perfection, but a celebration of maturity, of cherishing life's curve balls, a slightly giddy message of hope for the world weary. It's a film of moments, and while it doesn't always come together as a whole, those moments stay with you.
The screener I received had an acceptable, if not great, transfer. A little soft in spots, it was clear and watchable, if uninspired. The film is all dialogue and music, and the 5.1 audio track is strong, though there is really no need for Surround here.
Fox obviously had a problem here: how to address Shelly's death in a way that would not be exploitative. A feature on the crime itself would have been woefully out of place, so they offer up a seven-minute tribute to Shelly that focuses on her work on Waitress. Unfortunately, this is a bland, cliché-ridden piece with behind-the-scenes clips and testaments from the actors and producer Michael Roif. No mention is made of the rest of her career, we don't hear from her husband, family, or former collaborators, and the only way we know that Shelly has died is from the tinkly piano music, references to the director in the past tense, and listing her birth and death years. While it's commendable that Fox didn't capitalize on the lurid details of the crime to help sell the disc, ignoring it altogether does not remove the elephant from the room.
Russell and Roif provide a commentary that is more bland and awkward than informative ("Remember how cold it was that night," that sort of thing). "This is How We Made Waitress Pie" is an enjoyable "making of" featurette with Shelly and the actors giving their insights on the film. In "The Pies Have It," the principles talk about their favorite pies, and Shelly ruminates a bit on the sensuality of food. It's a cute extra that works better than it sounds. The remaining extras consist of Hines, Fillion, and Russell discussing their characters for the Fox Movie Channel, and an additional interview with Russell speaking more in-depth about Jenna.
We finish up with a short PSA for the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, which was established to help support women filmmakers pursue their art.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I haven't used these words yet, but there's no escaping it. Waitress is a chick flick. It's not a manipulative, repugnant monstrosity like Beaches, but this film is about, by, and ultimately made for women to enjoy. The male characters are devices: fantasy figures, nightmares, and the curmudgeonly father figure played by Griffith. Normally, I would summon up enough testosterone to risk an aneurism to warn others with XY chromosomes to avoid such a film, but not this time. Shelly's writing is cynically optimistic and insightful enough that this never becomes teary or goopy. It's not going to play on Poker Night, but a guy could do worse for a date movie.
Had Waitress not been overwhelmed by unspeakable tragedy, it would have created anticipation for the more polished, sophisticated project Shelly most likely had in her. Instead, we are left with only this sweet little wisp of a film to carry the burden of promise unfulfilled. Fox does a decent job with this release. It's a shame they didn't give us more insight on the creative force behind it.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Keri Russell and Producer Michael Roif
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