Eric D. Snider

Waitress

Movie Review

Waitress

by Eric D. Snider

Grade: A

Released: May 2, 2007

 

Directed by:

Cast:

There was significant buzz around "Waitress" when it played at Sundance in January. Its writer and director, Adrienne Shelly, had been murdered two months earlier, and some of us wondered if the film was being picked up for distribution simply because it had that salacious behind-the-scenes story. Was it a curiosity, or was it actually a good movie?

Turns out it's the latter. "Waitress" is not just good, but great, a funny and warm-hearted story about finding happiness, and the things people do while slogging through the valleys that sometimes lead to it. Shelly's screenplay is witty, even poetic, and she demonstrates an enviable understanding of human nature and an affection for her characters. She clearly understood that sometimes the most joyful happy endings only come after enduring some trials.

The title character is Jenna (Keri Russell), and she has indeed suffered her share of tribulation. She is young and pretty and an expert maker of pies, the envy of her friends and co-workers at Joe's Pie Diner in the little Southern town where the film is set. But no one would trade places with her for a minute, because she's married to Earl (Jeremy Sisto), a stifling lout who only knows how to love her by controlling her. She can't own a car or even keep her own tip money. He changed after they got married, and she hasn't loved him in years.

And so Jenna is sad, trapped in a bad situation where her only hope is to squirrel away enough cash to leave Earl and start over somewhere else. And then: Dang it, she gets pregnant. Earl got her drunk a few weeks ago, her defenses were down, and yep, now she's with child. She's not going to abort it, and she's going to take care of herself while she's pregnant, but she has no interest in this baby. The motherly feelings that are supposed to kick in? Not happening.

Jenna's lifeline is her two friends, both fellow waitresses at Joe's. Becky (Cheryl Hines), the saucier one, is married to a never-seen old invalid and is constantly sparring with Cal (Lew Temple), the grouchy restaurant manager. Dawn (Adrienne Shelly herself) is single and trying not to let her native optimism give way to despair as she continues to get older without finding love. The three women love and support one another through all their various trials, and they make some fine-looking pies all the while. (If you love pie, this movie will be like porn for you. It's pie porn.)

As if being married to a jerk and pregnant with a baby she doesn't want weren't enough, Jenna's life becomes more complicated when she meets her OB-GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). He's married, handsome, nervous, and a little odd. Before you know it, he and Jenna are having an affair.

Now, I want you to withhold judgment. One of the things I like about the film is that it doesn't denounce its characters' questionable behavior, nor does it condone it. It just lets them be who they are, flaws and all. Jenna knows it isn't right for her, a married woman, to be seeing Dr. Pomatter, a married man. But she also knows that Dr. Pomatter listens to her and cares for her. When she's with him, she feels happy and safe -- something she hasn't felt in a long, long time. No, the situation isn't ideal, and no, the movie isn't saying you should go out and commit some adultery if you think it'll help you feel better. What it's saying is that happiness is not always where you expect to find it, and that our lives can change for the better through ways we would not have foreseen.

Take Dawn, for example. She's plain-looking and simple, a down-home girl with damaged self-esteem. She's been doing what she calls "5-minute dates," so that if the guy turns out to be a dud, she doesn't waste a whole evening. ("Have fun on your 5-minute date!" Becky chirps. "Be sure to use a 5-minute condom!") One dud she meets is named Ogie (Eddie Jemison), a sweet but unremarkable man who has one thing going for him: endless enthusiasm. Ever-smiling, he shows up at Joe's Pie Diner the next day, insisting Dawn is the love of his life and he will never relent in his pursuit of her. He improvises poetry for her: "All my life I met harlots, but you are a queen/Ba-DA-duh-duh DA-duh-duh something between." And you know what? Eventually he wins her over. Their romance is a sunny contrast to the love-gone-wrong that exists in Jenna and Earl's home, a reminder that happiness is out there somewhere.

Nathan Fillion, best known for his roles in TV's "Firefly" and the film it spawned, "Serenity," is at his best when playing characters who are mildly befuddled, as Dr. Pomatter is. His rugged good looks make you think he'll be suave and confident, and then his delivery reveals hilarious uncertainty. Many of this film's funniest moments are the result of his interaction with Keri Russell -- another TV actor ("Felicity") whose charm and grace demand to be seen by wider audiences. You will absolutely fall in love with her in "Waitress."

Let me also mention Old Joe. He's a cantankerous old coot who owns the diner and several other local businesses, and he uses his grumpiness to hide his soft heart. He likes to sit in his favorite booth, eat his favorite pies, and complain. He is played by Andy Griffith, whom you probably already love for other reasons but who proves here that even at 80 years old, he can still do something surprising. Here's a character that could easily be a cliche -- the cranky old guy who offers sage advice -- and instead he's bracingly colorful and vivid.

Also crucial to the film's success is Jeremy Sisto's performance as Earl. Again, it would be easy to stereotype him: the villainous, no-good husband. Do too much to humanize him and you deny the audience the satisfaction of watching a bad guy get his comeuppance. But make him too one-dimensionally sinister and you lose the realism. Sisto's performance strikes a delicate balance between the two. We catch enough details about his insecurities to see him as a plausible character, but not so much that he becomes sympathetic. We believe him AND we hate him -- which, if you think about it, is a rare combination in movies.

But back to Jenna and the doctor. From a storytelling standpoint, Shelly has painted herself into a corner. We want Jenna and Dr. Pomatter to wind up together, but how can that happen in a way that has no collateral damage (we know Jenna's husband's a jerk, but what about Pommater's wife?), and that is also plausible? All the believable outcomes don't sound very happy, and all the happy outcomes don't sound very believable.

What a marvel, then, that Shelly pulls it off. The ending is both realistic and happy -- and I do mean happy, as in, make-you-cry, exit-the-theater-skipping-and-dancing, that kind of happy. The viewer and Jenna feel the same way: that it would be impossible for this to end well. And then, unexpectedly, it does, and having been so close to defeat makes the victory that much sweeter. What a tart, lovable, literate, life-affirming movie this is.

Grade: A

Rated PG-13, brief sexuality, some mild profanity

1 hr., 47 min.

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This item has 21 comments

  1. Chrystle says:

    Just saw it. Spot on, Eric. Absolutely spot on.

  2. Mark says:

    I would recommend this film to no one. Predictable and mediocre character development, the story never captured me the way Little Miss Sunshine, Schmidt and As Good as it Gets did.

  3. David Manning says:

    It's a shame; if this movie was really MARKETED it could be a huge hit. I saw it in one of the tinier, THX-lacking auditorioums at my local theater (the one they keep for "unimportant" films), and maybe 15 people ended up watching the movie as a total audience. (And by the way, every single person in the room LOVED the film--it's as if this whole group of strangers suddenly became best friends at least for a little while--because the laughs, the heart and the emotion were what we all shared together while we were watching this movie. The strong, contagious feelings the movie conveys are universally recognizable, and if you were to stand back and observe said audience while we were entranced in the film, you would see that we confirmed this--quite frequently and audibly.)

    In short, this movie made me feel like my viewing was enhanced, no, *improved*, by sharing it with a movie audience in a theater, and normally, I leave a theater wanting to rip out the spinal cord of the person in front of me who wouldn't stop talking on his cell phone and feed it to pirhanas. That this movie was able to make me feel such a thing, well, I think that really shows how special it is.

  4. Tina-Banina says:

    I agree with Mark. Although there were some cute and quirky moments, the movie really did nothing new. I watched it at Trolley Square at a screening that was apparently supposed to be exclusively for old people. The old people loved the movie (especially the sex-jokes). They liked it so much that they had to loudly repeat many of the lines to one another during the movie. They must not have been expecting much though, because they didn't think it was important to turn off their cell phones before hand. I on the other hand, had been expecting a great movie, and was disappointed. I think liking this movie is dependent on going in with low expectations.

  5. David Manning says:

    *shudder* ... Who ARE you people?!

  6. John Ellis says:

    Well, the ending is "realistic" if one accepts that crusty old rich business older with a heart of gold who just happens to count Jenna as his only friend is more than a Deus Ex Machina.

  7. Charlene Winters says:

    Eric Snider is becoming a remarkable movie reviewer, especially as he sheds the "I'm so clever" cutesiness behind in favor of insightful, intelligent observations about films.

  8. Fara says:

    Thought it was a great movie. It got people talking. People were singing the song in the lobby leaving the theater. Even though it is predictable at times, you have to be more cantankerous than old Joe pretends to be to just say it's predictable. Yes, I knew 90% of the things that happened were going to happen but it still had me laughing and crying and wishing that Adrienne Shelley could have made more movies.

  9. Momma Snider says:

    And even the predictable areas weren't quite as predictable as one might have predicted. (I guess I have to be careful about spoilers, since this is a review that some might read before seeing the movie.) What the old guy was going to do was predictable, but it really was inconsequential to her finding happiness -- she had figured things out before she opened his card. I think the point was that she found out how to make her own happiness, which is something we all need to learn eventually.

  10. Walt says:

    The contrived and disappointing climax is a real slap at men. Dr. Pomatter deserved better than a cold rebuke from Jenna. He was kind to her, protective, supportive and apparently loved her deeply. If the doctor was odd, how about Jenna? She's obsessed with pie creations and the memory of her mother. In the end, Jenna comes across as another immature and selfish young woman who focuses only on her own happiness. Hers is only a third of the story. What about the doctor's feelings? And one fears that Lulu, the doted on baby, will turn out to be spoiled rotten and grow up as insensitve as her mother. Earl certainly had his bad points. But when he worried about a mother loving her baby so much she would forget her husband, well, I think that's a theme that runs through many American families today. Ah, the baby mania. In Jenna, Ms. Shelly has created a powerful character promoting Earl's fears, it seems to me. The finale no doubt will serve as a litmus test. Thoughtful viewers of both sexes will see the flaws in Jenna and give her a dry-eyed ``good luck.''

  11. matt says:

    I wouldn't have even known about this movie had it not been for Eric's review. Than k heavens I did, because I just saw it last night and LOVED IT. Like, so much.

    Part of me wants to defend plot points and the ending, but just the fact that people are discussing the things that happened, whether they agreed with what happened or not, means that the movie was a success on some level.

    Anyway, let me add my voice to those who loved it and recommend it as well.

  12. Savvy Veteran says:

    I too just saw this, and it managed to slip in as my favorite movie of 2007 despite me seeing it in 2008. I went in knowing that it would be good, but I wasn't sure if it would be "my" kind of movie, if that makes sense. My mother described it to me as a 'women's film,' speculating that maybe I wouldn't enjoy it. Well, after finishing it I watched a sterotypical 'men's film' (Fight Club) for the first time, and while enjoying them both immensely, I liked Waitress more.

  13. Amp says:

    First, of course, let me say this post will have major SPOILERS.

    I actually didn't have much of a problem with the infidelity, although I did think it was a little implausible that emotionally unavailable Jenna would have an affair so quickly. It would have been more fitting of her character (and she would have garnered way more sympathy) had she and Dr. Pomatter developed any sort of friendship first. As it was, she jumped into bed (exam table, whatever) with him on what, her second appointment? I just didn't buy it.

    I did like Andy Griffith's character a lot, but I found most of the conversation between Jenna, Dawn and Becky to be completely phony. I was almost laughing during the expository "I wouldn't want to be you" scene because it just sounded ridiculous.

    My biggest reason for disliking it, however, was because I thought Shelly didn't deal properly with the serious issues she raised. First, there is the obvious infidelity. If you want a movie that presents infidelity as maybe a gray area of morality, that's fine, but you still have to deal with the consequences. At the end, Jenna might have found happiness, but what about Dr. Pomatter's wife? Dr. Pomatter, freshly dumped by Jenna, goes back to his wife and they have a happy marriage? I doubt it. At the very least, that issue should have been addressed. (And may I point out that single parenthood is not as rosy and happy as the movie pretends, whether or not one owns a pie shop.)

    Second, and this is the most pressing issue for me, is Earl. In the movie he is referred to as a jerk. Jerkiness is making your wife take the bus because you don't want to pick her up, and honking like a maniac when you do. However, not letting your wife have money, not letting her leave the house without your permission, hitting her on the face and shoving her head into the car window--that is domestic abuse. I was livid that, when violent, angry Earl comes into the diner, throws a chair through the window and then barks at Jenna to get in the car, not one character expressed even a modicum of hesitancy at letting heavily pregnant Jenna leave with him. Why didn't anyone stop her? Old Joe just says, "Your husband is a jerk!" You think? And then at the end, Jenna decides to get a divorce, tells him, and he just leaves her alone? Because FOR SURE someone who wouldn't even let his wife go away for a weekend would stop bothering her completely if she asked. A scene of Jenna in court to get a restraining order wouldn't be the sweetest of endings, but given how Earl was written, it's the most logical. It bothered me that Shelly introduced the very serious, troubling issue of spousal abuse, and then, when it no longer served her storytelling purposes, just dismissed it as if abuse is that easy to overcome. If she didn't want to deal with the consequences of Earl being abusive, she shouldn't have had him be abusive. Jenna's character would have been just as sympathetic with a plain old jerky husband.

    So that is why I hated Waitress.

  14. Savvy Veteran says:

    My goodness Amp, this is a movie, not a TV miniseries. You're telling me that you actually would have liked Waitress if:
    1. Jenna had gone to a few more appointments with the doctor (let me point out that it was not her second visit).
    2. It addressed Dr. Pomatter's post-affair relationship with his wife (a character who was only seen in the movie for an extremely short time).
    3. Another party-goer had confronted Earl about his misbehavior.
    4. It showed us that Jenna's life was not so happy, because, after all, she is a single mother, and that is just the worst.
    5. Among a few other things, it included a scene showing Jenna getting a restraining order.

    Now I'm familiar with your posts, and usually they are pretty intelligent. However, I felt that this was a very dumb analysis of a very good and uplifting movie. Again, this is a MOVIE. If it were a reality show, maybe we would have seen Jenna getting that restraining order, or they could have shown us a hidden camera view of Earl stalking her.

    P.S.: You were right about the "I wouldn't want to be you" scene though.

  15. Amp says:

    My point was that Shelly introduced serious issues, and then either glossed over them or let them slip away without properly addressing them. To me, it seemed like Shelly wanted to make a sweet, life-affirming movie about a woman overcoming trials and finding happiness. That is fine. What Shelly actually made, though, was a movie about a woman whose trials just magically disappeared. Pomatter's wife, the rapid progress of the affair, single-motherhood as not all happy (I didn't say "the worst"): You're right; those were minor and I probably could have overlooked them had not Earl's abuse also been included. But taken together, there were just too many consequences that Shelly ignored. So yes, either there should have been more follow up to Earl's abuse or Shelly just should never had included it. (The idea about a restraining order scene was a joke.)

    I understand that I am overthinking, and overreacting, to a movie that probably wasn't supposed to be analyzed thus, but frankly, I didn't find the movie uplifting. Watching Jenna get smacked around was disturbing; that the movie ignored the fact Earl was abusive (i.e. Earl was not even labeled abusive), let alone the omission of any sort of comeuppance, angered me. It didn't turn me into a Titanic-loving, foaming-at-the-mouth teenage girl (luckily), but by the end, I didn't like the movie at all, and I wouldn't recommend it.

  16. Savvy Veteran says:

    All very good points.

    I think the reason that Shelly didn't straight up label Earl as the "abusive character" is because that would make him a completely lopsided person. Your mention of the Titanic reminded me of how Eric criticized that movie's depiction of the fiance as basically a stinky smelly rat with no redeeming qualities. Now Earl may not have had any "good" qualities per se, but was definitely not a one-dimensional character. The scene when Earl discovers Jenna has been hiding money and begins to cry made me actually feel bad for Earl. Shelly could definitely have spent a little more time addressing the problems presented with spousal abuse, but for this reason I really feel that it just wouldn't have belonged.

  17. Amp says:

    I can see that. I think I was expecting something a little less emotionally-heavy when I saw it, so the abuse was hard to overcome.

    I did actually bake a pie tonight, though, because I have been dying for one ever since I saw the movie. So it has that going for it.

  18. Duke of Earl Grey says:

    I have to agree with Amp that the movie ignoring the spousal abuse issue was a problem. Not to mention the obvious fact that Earl would not be out of Jenna's life magically just because she divorced him. They have a baby, so he must have visitation rights. Jenna has apparently stayed in town, so she's going to be seeing him every couple weeks at least, right? But the movie would have us think she's totally free from him? I'm not saying she couldn't still be as happy in that situation as she is, but I think some things needed acknowledgment.

  19. Dallas Dude says:

    *** SPOILERS in the text ***

    We just saw the film last night on DVD. I was expecting a sweet but tasty lightweight comedy. What popped up was something much more complex in taste. I thought it was far more a quirky drama than a comedy. But in the end, I did enjoy the story served.

    As for some of the comments posted here, I certainly can see why others may have been upset with the film, or even a bit bitter. But the resolution I thought was perfect. It didn't take the money for her to own up to her own self-worth, and make a fresh start. Also, she didn't need to leave down (or runaway) to realize she had a life worth living right were she was once she took control of her own life. As for the doctor, I didn't need to know his outcome. Sometimes people stroll into our lives just to remind us of who were are or who we can be, and then stroll back out. That has happened to me many times. Just because he has an affair doesn't mean he's a terrible husband, or that he doesn't live happily ever after with his wife. I think the writer did a good job of shading these characters, but you don't need to know every last detail of their story. Life is a series of ambiguities, and I think the film captured that feeling while still staying structured as a piece of storytelling.

    As for single parenthood, not everyone thinks its a rotten job. In fact, most of my single parent friends are very happy and have grown as people because of their kids. I think the movie lesson here is: do you control your life, or do you let life control you?

  20. CMaxx says:

    I know this comment is pretty late to the party, but I'll make it just the same.

    SPOILER(S)

    People above have written that Earl wouldn't just magically stop bothering Jenna because she asked him to. That maybe what she needed to do was get a restraining order.

    I respectfully submit that those folks are missing the point of the ending. Jenna gave birth to Lulu, and those "motherly feelings" that Eric mentioned finally kicked in BIG TIME. Whatever was going on with Jenna that was allowing her to stay in that place with Earl, well now she's not having any of it, because Lulu is here and needs to be protected. At this point, Jenna doesn't need a restraining order, because she's not going to let anything happen to her daughter.

    In fact, I think it's the exact opposite of what Walt said above. She wasn't immature or selfish at all. She knew she needed to take care of the baby, and her being with either of the "men" in her life wasn't going to get it done. Being selfish would have been her continuing her affair with the doc, who makes her feel happy and safe. She gives that up for the munchkin.

    Also, this film is kinda fairy-talely, kinda whimsical. It's allowed to have Lulu's arrival "magically" give Jenna the strength to oust Earl from her life and make it stick.

    Yeah, so in case you couldn't tell, I liked this movie.

    CM

  21. He says, She says says:

    Hey, Eric thanks for the recommendation. After reading your fantastic review, I rented Waitress out last night. It's definately on my All-Time Favourite Movies.

    Thanks for the review, would've never heard about it otherwise.

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