Waitress (2006) instills a familiar plot with a fresh perspective, partially because of the particular approach the film takes to its subject, partially due to the excellent acting of Keri Russell and supporting cast. Russell plays Jenna Hunterson, a young waitress who works in a pie diner in a small Southern town. She expresses her emotional life through the pies she bakes—she names them after moods and situations she is in. She has no other emotional outlet. Early in the film Jenna discovers that she is pregnant by the husband whom she doesn’t like and whom she is plotting to leave. He is a controlling and self-centered bubba. She begins a hot affair with the obstetrician she goes to see about her pregnancy—he is new to town, married to a resident physician at the local hospital.
The film traces Jenna’s reaction to her developing pregnancy, the affair with her doctor, and the increasingly domineering behavior of her husband—he forbids her from traveling to a local town for a pie baking competition, requires that she turn over all her earnings, and forces her to swear that she will never love the baby as much as she loves him. Jenna narrates the film, and she makes clear that she does not love her husband and does not want the baby. She plans to have it anyway.
The freshness of the film comes partially through the perspective of director and writer Adrienne Shelly, who questions the traditional notions that a woman can find fulfillment through marriage and motherhood. Jenna’s dissatisfaction, her sense of entrapment in her marriage to Earl, is a constant focus. The pregnancy and the not-so-subtle urgings of her friends at the diner to embrace motherhood become another layer of entrapment. The two waitresses who work with her in the diner are themselves constantly on the lookout for men. One is married to an older man who is (apparently) an invalid—she is having an affair with the thoroughly distasteful manager of the diner. The other seeks companionship through a newspaper dating service. She becomes involved with a strange little man whose enthusiasm and poetry writing initially put her off.
The setting of a small Southern town helps focus Jenna’s struggle against a deeply entrenched Southern male power structure. We see this in a number of other films about the South, such as Jezebel (1938), Norma Rae (1979), and Places in the Heart (1984). (The power structure is Southern only because the film is set in the South—it exists everywhere, though the South’s reputation as a bastion of patriarchal traditions underlies the logic of the film).
Waitress pursues its concern with Jenna’s entrapment, with her need and the need of the other waitresses for release and fulfillment, through comic and satiric means. This is not a heavy-handed or doctrinaire film. But it makes its point.
Perhaps the most comical character in Waitress is Jenna’s husband Earl. He views Jenna solely in terms of how she serves his own well being. When they have sex (rarely) he is concerned only with his own satisfaction. He tells her that she has never been sexy and comments often on her increasing size. When he discovers the money she has been hiding around the house (money she has been saving to fund her escape from the marriage) she tells him she has been saving it to buy a crib and other things for the baby. He believes her, and uses the unspent portion of the money to buy himself a video camera to film the birth. Earl is the supreme example of a self-centered, wholly egotistical man who views his marriage and his wife solely as an enhancement to his own ego. Although he is an exaggerated parody, not a few men who watch the film should feel a wee bit uncomfortable with what they recognize of themselves in his character.
Jenna finds an alternative to Earl in her obstetrician Dr. Pomatter. He compliments her, enjoys her cooking, listens to her thoughts and concerns, and for much of the film she genuinely considers running away with him. In many ways, as she finally decides, he is just another version of Earl.
The small town in which Waitress occurs offers the director a venue for a comical cast of eccentric and quaint Southern characters. Foremost among them is Old Joe, played by Andy Griffith. He owns the pie bar and comes in each day with an exacting set of demands that only Jenna seems able to carry out to his satisfaction. Despite his crotchety exterior, the film gradually reveals an inner personality that at first we don’t see.
A fortuitous turn of events at the end of the film—not wholly a surprise—provides Jenna with an escape from her predicament. It is, unfortunately, not a solution available to most women in her predicament, a fact indicative of the basically romantic and fairy-tale character of the film.
Nonetheless, Waitress is thoroughly engaging.
Adrienne Shelley was murdered shortly before the film’s release.