by RISHI AGRAWAL
There’s a subplot in Waitress where a sap named Ogie (Eddie Jemison) tries to woo one of the waitresses at Joe’s Diner. Not the titular waitress, played by Keri Russell, but the one played by the director, Adrienne Shelly. Ogie could be one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever seen. The worst part about him is he composes spontaneous poetry, awkward stuff that is supposed to be funny but just ended up grating on my nerves. However, he never gives up and eventually starts to grow on the woman of his dreams. Now, his character never appealed to me, but I look at it as a metaphor for the entire movie. I absolutely despised this movie for the first half hour or so, but then slowly, bit by bit, the film’s unrelenting attempts won me over. Despite serious flaws, this is a charming movie.
I am sure everyone knows about the tragedy of Adrienne Shelly, who was murdered after the film was completed, but before it premiered at Sundance. There has been enough publicity about Shelly’s death, so I would prefer to talk about the film itself rather than the sad story behind it. The plot is straightforward enough. Jenna (Russell) is a waitress and a pie genius who is married to a domineering and paranoid husband (Jeremy Sisto). Jenna realizes that she is pregnant, which she is not happy about. To make matters even more complicated, she falls for Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), her obstetrician. Meanwhile, Jenna dreams of running away and winning a pie contest so she can be through with her husband forever.
What I enjoyed about the film is that it had unique elements that really made it stand apart from your average film. The narrative is broken up with scenes of Jenna creating recipes for her pies, shot in fast motion with an overhead view of the pie. These scenes struck me as slightly contrived in the trailers, but in the context of the film, they really work. The film seems to exist in this strange universe where people don’t eat anything besides pie. In one scene, Jenna even bakes a spaghetti pie for dinner. Besides, who could not be delighted by the thought of Marshmallow Mermaid Pie or Lonely Chicago Pie?
The movie also has occasional narration by Jenna as she writes letters to her unborn baby. This is not a unique concept, but as the letters are peppered with a healthy dose of sarcasm and witty writing, they are quite enjoyable to listen to. The film actually has some profound moments as well. I am somewhat sick of the stereotype of small-town people with “country wisdom” but there are a couple of moments in the film when the characters say things that struck me as insightful. Shelly, who also wrote the film, may have been reaching too hard at certain points, but she was occasionally right on target.
Most of the acting is just adequate but Russell and Fillion stand apart. This is probably Fillion’s most prominent role other than Firefly and its progeny and it confirms his acting ability. There is genuine chemistry in the film with Jenna’s hard-shelled sarcasm and Dr. Pomatter’s awkward nervousness. The romance is really at the center of the film, complicated by the fact that both participants are married and Jenna is pregnant. Fortunately, the romance does not go in completely predictable directions.
For all the good in the film, I did note that I hated this film at the beginning before being seduced by its charm. I guess my main problem with the film is that the characters seemed like caricatures. The whole thing felt like an urban misconception of how people behave in small towns. Throw in some hollow dialogue and very frequent cuts, and the film seemed amateurish at first. But, perhaps this was all calculated. If the characters were more genuine, then some of the weirder elements of the film would have seemed completely out of place.
Waitress is, by no means, a perfect film but I think that Shelly has left behind a praiseworthy legacy. This film will not give up in its attempts to win you over, and I think, for most viewers, it will succeed. If you do plan to see the film, make sure you know a good place to get some pie afterward, because you’ll certainly want some.