It’s entirely possible that moviegoers are already burned out on the megabuck sequels trampling their way through America’s summertime cineplexes like so many celluloid Godzillas, Ghidorahs and Mothras. If the likes of Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End have you hankering for a nice, quiet movie with nary a Happy Meal tie-in in sight, then you’ll be pleased to note that the first sleeper hit of the summer season has already arrived.
Waitress sashays into theaters without a massive budget, A-list stars or an Xbox 360 videogame to promote it. But with its breezy charm and mature viewer appeal, it’s probably just the sort of guilt-free, Southern-fried treat a lot of moviegoers are hungry for right about now.
The broadly appealing comedy/drama is the first major writing/directing effort from actress Adrienne Shelly (a fave of New York director Hal Hartley, who cast her in The Unbelievable Truth and Trust). Sadly, the biggest publicity for the film came earlier this year when Shelly became the victim of a tragic homicide in her Manhattan apartment. It’s a sad footnote to a film marked by optimism and generally good-natured observations about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Keri Russell (former “Felicity” headliner) stars as the titular service industry pro, a smiling but deeply unhappy gal named Jenna working at a small-town diner somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The chief source of unhappiness in Jenna’s life is her emotionally abusive lout of a husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto from “Six Feet Under”). The primary source of happiness in Jenna’s life is, believe it or not, her work. Since childhood, Jenna has been gifted with an almost preternatural skill at baking pies. People come from all over to sample Jenna’s exotic desserts, christened with such exotic names as “Falling in Love Pie” and “Bad Baby Pie.”
Despite her humble surroundings, Jenna has dreams. She dreams, for example, of winning the top prize in a regional bake-off. She also dreams of taking that prize money and leaving Earl in her dust. Jenna’s plans to hit the highway encounter a major roadblock, however, when she discovers she’s pregnant (due to a rare bout of alcohol-induced, post-marital sex). The last thing she wants is a baby, especially one that will tie her forever to her trailer trash hubby. (Hell, honey, it didn’t stop Britney Spears.)
Jenna’s fellow waitresses, Becky and Dawn (Cheryl Hines from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Shelly herself in a smaller role), are ecstatic over the impending motherhood. But Jenna isn’t so sure, narrating a preemptive, movie-length apology to her unwanted, unborn child.
Jenna’s life changes, however, when she meets her obstetrician, new-hunk-in-town Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion from “Firefly”). Jenna is somehow smitten with the shy, awkwardly charming doctor (who is also married). Soon, despite their better judgments, the two get entangled in a naughty, clandestine affair.
With its audience-friendly mixture of food and romance, Waitress ought to do for pies what Like Water for Chocolate and Chocolat did for cocoa-based treats, what Eat Drink Man Woman did for dumplings, what Sideways did for wine, what Simply Irresistible did for ... actually, that one didn’t do anything for anybody. Though it caters mostly to the cute ’n’ sweet crowd, Waitress is not without its thorny moments. Jenna’s adulterous affair isn’t exactly Bible Belt material. And though its characters seem to walk a fairly preordained path, Waitress opens up at least a few unexpected options for its players.
Shelly occasionally surrenders to her screenplay’s broader, more sitcom-esque moments. Brassy Becky and mousy Dawn are always seconds away from morphing into Flo and Vera from “Alice.” Still, Shelly has a genuine affection for her characters and is smart enough to stop them from devolving into complete caricatures.
Andy Griffith drops by for a tart cameo as a grumpy local entrepreneur who’s probably nicer than he lets on. Fillion does commendable work filling in the outlines of Dr. Pomatter: He’s handsome and well-meaning but displays just enough poor impulse control to avoid being branded your standard romantic hero. Rooting it all, though, is Russell’s very likable, down-to-earth performance as the film’s resident “pie genius.” Jenna is a resolutely unromantic, unsentimental gal, who nonetheless is bursting at the seams with passion. This is certainly the best work Russell has done, and it’s hard not to chalk it up to the stewardship of Shelly. It’s a shame Shelly won’t be gracing us with more of this funny, heartfelt stuff. Still, Waitress amounts to a hearty three-course meal (with dessert, of course) in a summer filled with greasy fast food.