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Waitress, a film made by the late Adrienne Shelly, is a likeable romance without the romance. In a movie that begins with a positive pregnancy test, it's safe to expect that childbirth will provide some sort of climax, and that is very much the case here. Jenna (Keri Russell) dreams of escaping her awful husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto) and her small Southern town, and in the furtherance of this scheme, she has secreted money all over her house - or, rather, the house that Earl is gracious enough to provide for her. Jenna is deeply frightened by Earl, almost paralyzed by him, and indeed this is a marriage that is for the most part extremely unfunny.
Nor is Jenna's fling with Dr Pomatter, her obstetrician (Nathan Fillion), authentically romantic. She's married, and so is he. Their embraces are played for laughs, and usually follow immediately upon solemn vows to cease such inappropriate behavior. The ongoing story offers no clues as to how on earth either of Jenna's relationships is going to work out. To the extent that he can, Earl treats his wife as a prisoner. He doesn't even want her to work.
Jenna works as a waitress at Joe's Pie Shop, where she is also the cook who produces miraculously delicious, jocularly titled pies. Where she finds the time to whip up these creations is a question left to Hollywood Magic; Jenna may have serious man problems, but she seems to have plenty of time. Joe (Andy Griffith) has nothing to do with the day-to-day operation of the place, but he's an impossible old curmudgeon who drives Jenna's colleagues, Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Ms Shelly) crazy with his elaborate orders. Only Jenna can handle him. He loves her pies as much as anybody else. When he tells Jenna that he's going into the hospital for a bit of surgery, you begin to see a way out for Jenna - and you're right.
But what you're not prepared for is the effect of childbirth on Jenna. Although she takes care of the baby during pregnancy, she resents it and is horrified to imagine how it will change her life for the worse. She complains so extensively (in voice-overs) that you come to believe her, forgetting what you may know about the reaction of most mothers to their newborns. Let's just say that baby Lulu clears the air for Jenna. Her difficulties turn out to have been illusions.
Waitress is not just another chicken-fried comedy. Ms Russell is too painfully pretty to play the part of an overlooked Cinderella, but she speaks her character's ungrammatical Southern English with agreeable authority, and listening to her becomes one of the movie's principal charms. Mr Sisto has found an odiousness that is all his own, and he deserves some sort of award for making his character so extremely unattractive. Ms Shelly has given Earl a lot of annoying tics that are sort of funny - such as the way he blasts his horn when he comes to pick up Jenna - but he remains a man who's not even thinking of redemption. He slaps Jenna only once in the film, but he can't move without physical menace. His attempts to make love to his wife involve a certain ick factor.
Mr Fillion is amiable enough as the doctor who's dangerously clumsy except when Jenna is kissing him, but his role is touched by Hollywood Magic, too. Dr Pomatter doesn't look the romantic type, much less the inappropriately wreckless type, and he's not very hungry, either. In the end, these limitations are not serious, because they make the finale all the more plausible. Ms Shelly and Ms Hines play their fairly stereotypical roles with relish, if not invention. Eddie Jemison, however, brings something new to the role of a very unlikely suitor. It's Mr Griffith, however, who represents the film's genius. He is calm, deliberate, and unrecognizable. His sonorous voice sounds nearly godlike - as befits his character's role in the plot.
Ms Shelly has made a film that skips around its conventions without every wandering away from them, and this makes it much more interesting than a run into left field would have been. You never know which of a handful of extremely likely possibilities is going to be the one that happens. Liberal use of fades to black toward the end give Waitress a grave feeling that is not unmerited. This movie is about love. Not romance, but everyday, Good-Book love. (May 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press