Jenna (Keri Russell), a waitress at a small town pie shop in the Deep South, is married to the worst guy in the world, Earl (Jeremy Sisto). To her dismay, she learns she is pregnant, the one time in recent history that she got drunk and had sex with her husband. Her only friends are the other two waitresses at the shop. Becky (Cheryl Hines, TV's "Curb Your Enthusiasm"), a talkative woman married to a paraplegic, older man is the most demonstrative. She loves the guy, but she needs the affection of a man and has affairs. Dawn (the film's writer/ director Adrienne Shelly), is a shy woman who has been on one bad date too many. Together, these women give each other love and support and help each other through their problems. Jenna is also the baker, making the pies the shop sells. She has always had a knack for creating unusual, delicious pies. As she deals with the many problems in her life, she creates new pies, making them before our eyes, naming them after the troubles she has. Jenna is the only one of the three waitresses who will wait on Old Joe (Andy Griffith), the exacting owner of the pie shop. He comes in every day and places a meticulous order that he expects to be filled exactly as requested. He dictates when he wants his water and his orange juice and if something isn't right, he sends it back. After she learns she is pregnant, Jenna goes to her doctor and finds a new doctor; Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion, TV's "Drive" and "Firefly") has taken over the practice. Dr. Pomatter has problems of his own and becomes attracted to Jenna.
Written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, "Waitress" is a nice, pleasant little film. It is, perhaps, a bit too 'corn pone' at times, too much so for its own good. But it is a pleasant enough little film to help while away a few hours.
Unfortunately, Shelly, a veteran of many independent films, was murdered a few months before the film premiered at Sundance. And this has become the main talking point of the film. This sad event has little bearing on the film, or it's quality.
"Waitress" aims for a folksy-type of quality with a dash of modern day fairy tale thrown in. Keri Russell is very good and very believable as Jenna. Every moment she is on screen, we get little bits of her pain, her desperation, her escape through baking, her interest in the awkward Dr. Pomatter and more. It also seems completely natural that she would be the one person who can handle Old Joe. Facing many desperate feelings, she would naturally be kind to just about everyone she meets and Old Joe is no exception.
As we watch Jenna bake, Russell shows how she developed through life. She recalls fond memories of baking and singing songs with her mother. She also reverently describes how her mother baked, clearly inheriting the skill. Everyone who tastes one of her pies seems transported by sheer bliss. All of this helps to balance her character and make her more believable.
The first time Earl drives up, we get an instant vision of what he is like as a spouse. Driving up to the three waitresses sitting on the stoop of the pie shop, he honks the car's horn consistently. Here I am. Here I am. Look at me. And this serves to make Jenna more human, more interesting and more complex. She is trapped in her relationship with needy Earl and can't get out. During their conversations, he consistently reminds her that he "put the roof over her head"; he "provides everything for her." They are really co-dependent on each other. It is a sad relationship, but we see why she would believe this and why she would feel trapped.
Jeremy Sisto (HBO's "Six Feet Under", TV's "Kidnapped") plays Earl, Jenna's needy, controlling husband. Constantly in need of assurance, reassurance and encouragement, he doesn't want Jenna to do anything that would take her out of his control for long. She receives phone calls at work from her husband in which he needs to hear how much she loves him. When they are together, he threatens to force her to stay at home and quit her job. When he wants to have sex, they have sex, or he threatens to pull some of her liberties. When they are in bed, he forces her to reassure him, tell him how great he is, to make him feel like a man.
Sisto dos a very good job of making the viewer loathe this 'man', but he also reveals the insecurities Earl has. All of these activities are designed to make Earl feel better about him, but they only reveal what a whimpering sop he truly is. Behind every smile, he has a threat ready. As soon as he threatens Jenna, he tries to smile and get back in her good graces, forcing himself into her good graces.
Andy Griffith plays Old Joe, the owner of a number of businesses in the small town. At his age, he can afford to be exacting and if his requests aren't meant, he wants something redone. The role is a nice turn for Griffith, but it often veers dangerously close to the stereotype of the wise old sage. Joe is the type of guy who is always willing to offer a piece of thinly disguised advice in a sage remark. Griffith manages to keep the role from becoming cloying by also being a bit ornery and exacting.
The rest of the cast doesn't fare as well. Cheryl Hines' portrayal of Becky takes it little beyond Flo in the old "Alice" television series. I half expected her to say "Kiss my grits" at least once. She is having an affair with a guy, but won't reveal the details to her two friends, playing coy and flirty. It is a very broad role and the character has few subtle nuances. Adrienne Shelly's Dawn is also a little broad and a bit too 'country-fied'. Apparently, she has dating trouble, so she announces she is going on a five-minute blind date. The guy she goes out with likes to make 'spontaneous poetry', stringing together a series of nonsensical statements and filling in the blanks with 'da da da dadada da'. This is, apparently, endearing to Becky, because they are soon dating hot and heavy.
"Waitress" is not going to surprise many. The story is sweet and good-natured but pretty formulaic. Some of the moments that will happen towards the end of the story are pretty easy to spot and will seem expected.
But the film is saved by the performance of Keri Russell and her musings on the state of her life. As she thinks about a new problem in her life, we see a pie shell in the middle of the screen and a bunch of different ingredients are plopped in as Jenna draws parallels between the ingredients and her life. When she learns she is pregnant, she comes up with the "Bad Baby" pie. Her relationship with Earl warrants the "I Hate My Husband Pie". All of these creations end up on the menu and appear as though they could be delicious. These pies also help illicit a few humorous moments when people ask for them by name moments after Jenna has created them.
At the center of "Waitress" is an interesting, believable and engaging character that is surrounded by an increasingly broad series of supporting characters that really detract from the focus and believability of the film as a whole.