WAITRESS written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, with Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Cheryl Hines, Jeremy Sisto and Andy Griffith. 107 minutes. A Fox Searchlight release. Opens Friday (May 11). Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Writer-director Adrienne Shelly was murdered in New York before Waitress was released, so in a way it feels churlish to criticize it. Fortunately, there's much to praise here.
Like the writing, for instance. The dialogue is funny, and while at times the film seems to be poking gentle fun at Southerners, overall it offers a moving and plausible picture of small-town life.
Keri Russell plays Jenna, a diner waitress with a gift for baking pies who's trapped in a terrifying marriage to Earl (Jeremy Sisto). Although her friends Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Shelly) feel sorry for her, they are powerless to help her.
Russell is wonderful as a woman hemmed in by circumstance; Nathan Fillion is likewise excellent as the deadpan obstetrician who falls for her.
But the outstanding performance is Sisto's (Six Feet Under), the best portrait of an emotionally abusive husband I've ever seen on film. It's all here: the neediness, the sudden violent outbursts, the baffling declarations of love, and above all the narcissism. When he finds out that Jenna's pregnant, Earl's response is, "I'm not saying get rid of it, but you gotta promise you won't love it more than me."
With all this, it's easy to forgive the lacklustre direction, which may be intended to mimic Jenna's hemmed-in feeling but seems distractingly staid, if that's possible; the sitcom-fake belly Russell sports for much of the film; the conceit that a woman as exquisite and talented as Jenna can't find someone to help her; and the plot twists telegraphed a half-hour before they happen.
Unfortunately, what's unforgivable is the ending, which is so ridiculous and unbelievable that it very nearly ruins the film. Without giving too much away, let me just say that a film that takes such care to develop delicate and believable characters would do well not to shatter them in the last five minutes.
The ending makes Shelly's final work a good film instead of a great one.