With the visual splendor of a Tasty recipe video and the emotional sweetness of a classic Rob Reiner rom-com, “Waitress” masterfully blends sugar and spice without ever treading into melodrama or over-sentimentality. Adrienne Shelly’s final film is a nuanced look at risks and rewards of adult relationships, a movie that acknowledges the universal problems and lack of solutions apparent in modern day marriage and child-rearing. The film falls into cliche in its final moments, but considering the dramatic deliciousness we just feasted on, we’re willing to forget about “Waitress'” crumby, storytelling faux pas.
Guiding us on this berry-filled emotional bonanza is Jenna Hunterson (Keri Russell), a waitress at a small-town diner somewhere in the American South. Wearing a lemon-colored uniform and a sourpuss expression to match, Jenna has clearly spent a long time living in this one horse town. Even if she wanted to leave, she doesn’t have the financial means or training to hop on that horse and ride off to greener pastures. Plus, her abusive, chauvinist husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto) would trample her efforts before she even tried.
Fittingly, the one place Earl wants Jenna to be most is the one place where she’s her most independent: the kitchen. Here, Jenna whips up colorful pie concoctions, a ballet of berries and delectable dough, conducted by the loving hand of an unloved woman. Each pie for Jenna is a therapy session, a calming, one-person Yoga class where only rolling pins are required. She’s not happy with Earl, but as long as she has her pies, she can survive. The situation isn’t unbearable on Jenna, but the fact that it will probably never change is what is so defeating.
Then Jenna gets pregnant. Her waitressing cohorts Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly) are supportive, but they know the situation will only weigh Jenna down. When Jenna starts going to see Jim, her new doctor (Nathan Fillion), the encounters start off as awkward and tense. But the two inevitably tie tongues, a romance with a maximum cook time of nine months before it gets burnt to a crisp.
All of these situations are common dining fare of the rom-com flock: abusive husband, caring male suitor, eccentric friends, and a woman with no back support to carry the massive weight the world’s rested on her shoulders. But “Waitress” spins these tropes with a profound sense of maturity, refusing to cast judgement on its characters (except for Earl) for their misdeeds. When Becky is revealed to also be having an affair, she bluntly admits that she can never leave her bed-ridden husband, but she also won’t stop from living her lipstick-stained life when he isn’t around. Jim is also married and his relationship with Jenna seems like something of an early mid-life crisis. While the dramatic weight of his cheating never seems to impact him that greatly, we can still see reluctance and regret lurking behind his medical school smirk.
While the women are coated with deep characterization, the men’s emotional potential fails to satisfy our dramatic sweet tooth. Earl is certainly a believable blue collar husband, the type who’d get drunk and brash and berate his wife at family barbecues. But there is indication that Earl wasn’t always this way, that perhaps there was once a collar on his black t-shirt, or an actual jawline where his double chin now resides. But Earl is only painted as the foil here, both the rock and the hard place for Jenna with nothing meaningful to say in-between.
If Earl is the Dixie South exemplar of toxic masculinity, then Ogie (Eddie Jamison) is the torch-bearer for the confederate “nice guys,” having to flex smiles and kindness since he has no other muscles of his own. Ogie is infatuated with Dawn, the meekest of the waitressing trio, and delivers dozens of telephone calls and creepy poems to win her over. His efforts prove successful, but the new romance feels dangerously old world. Maybe Ogie is the best that Dawn will ever do, and that choosing to be happy with someone who isn’t your top pick is just as rewarding as Becky’s infidelity or Jenna’s affair. But there’s a message there, that a creepy guy can get what he wants from a girl if he never gives up, that feels like its deflating the female empowerment mood nestled at the heart of “Waitress.”
It feels that way, but we must remind ourselves that “Waitress” isn’t explicitly a feminist film. These are characters working to make the best of their situations, where each person in their lives can be be a conflict or a solution. Jenna is initially annoyed by the curt Joe (Andy Griffith), an older patron of the restaurant who nearly tortures the wait staff with his extensive dining demands. Jenna only gets close to Joe since she was helping Becky solve a problem by taking him off her plate. Then Joe later becomes the solution for Jenna, transforming into a deus ex machina by the end.
It’s this kind of character interweaving, where emotions are valid even if actions are not, that makes “Waitress” a wholly-worthwhile film treat. Russell is at her very best as Jenna, a battered woman fighting to revive her dwindling optimism. While everyone in “Waitress” learns the harsh truth that fantasy is oft never reality, that doesn’t stop them from remixing the ingredients of their life for something more flavorful.