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“Waitress” is a fairy tale for the modern age, pure and simple. It takes place in a middle-of-nowhere small-town where everyone knows each other, no one is without a close friend, and the doctor’s office is in his home. Its heroine is a beautiful young woman who needs to be rescued from both her insecure monster of a husband and also the stranger of a child growing inside her. Her knight-in-shining-armor is her gynecologist, a charming, attentive man with whom she begins an affair. But her eventual rescuer is no man, it is herself. And possibly her baby, a little bit, too.
Keri Russell plays Jenna, the waitress of the title. We don’t know her last name. She is simply “Jenna” to us, and that is just fine. Like the rest of the movie, the character Jenna is plopped down in front of us and talked about. She is an old friend we haven’t seen in awhile and the movie is her story, told by a mutual friend, over iced tea on the front porch. Ms. Russell creates this feeling of familiarity effortlessly, or at least seemingly so. She speaks in the plain, unschooled way of so many waitresses we’ve met, even though underneath that crisp uniform is a woman who is as sharp as her neatly-pressed apron.
Jenna has a talent for making a whole variety of delectable pies. This is part of her identity, the part of her person that the customers get to see on a daily basis. This is also her release from her troubles at home.
Like many women who seek to act professionally on the job, Jenna tries very hard to distinguish between her work life and her painful personal life. But once you know someone well enough, that boundary becomes blurred. The personal life starts spilling over. We notice things.
And so does Joe, a crotchety regular customer and the owner of the diner in which Jenna works. Joe is played by Andy Griffith, and it is a performance that deserved more accolades than it got upon initial release. We’ve long since become accustomed to veteran actors playing variations of themselves after their absences from Hollywood. It could be argued that Griffith is just doing the same here, but he does it so artfully that one couldn’t imagine anyone better for the role. In a way, he is a cartoonish Southern gentleman, albeit one that is rough around the edges and enjoys reading the obituaries to “live vicariously through the pain of others.” But then there is his relationship with Jenna, which, in its own absurd way, gives her everything she needs. Likely, she never had a good father growing up. Joe is somewhat of a replacement, and we get the impression that he knows it. He will chide her mercilessly, but at the same time make her feel attractive and important. He may be the one person she can truly trust, the one she knows will never change.
If there is one problem with “Waitress” it is with the character of Dr. Pomatter. He is the gynecologist with whom Jenna has an affair. The married gynecologist. Now, the movie makes it clear that the affair is misguided. It shows that Jenna is acting out of desperation, that Dr. Pomatter gives her what she should be getting from her needy husband, which is not just sex, but also friendship and love. We understand why Jenna gets mixed-up in this, even if we don’t agree with her choices.
Which makes it all the more frustrating when we leave the movie feeling confused about Dr. Pomatter. How exactly are we supposed to feel about him? Yes, he injected our friend Jenna’s life with some much-needed happiness, but what were his own reasons for the affair? The movie gives us no explanation and ultimately paints him as a sort of louse, for we do eventually get a glimpse of him and his wife together and they seem perfectly happy. She seems like a genuinely nice woman, unaware even as her husband stares lustfully into the eyes of Jenna right next to her.
But then, this is Jenna’s story, isn’t it? If we wanted to know every detail about Dr. Pomatter, well, then we would have gone to a movie called “OB-GYN.” As a matter of fact, perhaps all we end up knowing about the good doctor is all Jenna ever knows. And what she knows is that for awhile, he gave her all the love she needed; the time of her life. Maybe for that reason alone, we can forgive him.
The movie has a wonderful look to it. The world of “Waitress” exists firmly in real-life, but also a life that none of us have ever known. As we enter the diner and see the staff in their old-fashioned uniforms, filling up coffee cups from vintage pots, we get the impression that we’ve crossed over into a dimension that floats just inches above our own. A sort of fantasy-reality, the best kind of storybook setting. The feel is retro and contemporary all at once, and then also maybe neither. Whatever it is, it is appealing.
“Waitress” contains, in my opinion, one of the best movie lines this year. It is not particularly creative, probably didn’t even take two seconds to think up. But it is sincere, and with this line, the good heart of the late screenwriter Adrienne Shelly shines through. After Jenna gives birth to the baby whom she thinks will only complicate her life further, she lies on the bed as she waits for her to be cleaned. All at once, her daughter is handed to her and the rest of her world melts away. She stops noticing her yelling husband, she forgets about the guilt she shares with Dr. Pomatter; all she sees is her baby. It is then that she says, “We are going to have so much fun.” And you can tell she means it. The words are so simple and generic that a lesser writer might not even bother putting them in. But if she did that, she would lose the truth that deep down, this is what everyone wants for their children. She would have lost the sincerity.
Really, the entire movie exerts sincerity. The overall impression is that all involved set out to do nothing more. And for that, I thank them. Because here is a movie we believe in. We believe these people do and say the things they do. We believe they feel, and laugh, and cry, and long for something better.
And we believe that, sometimes, all it takes to ease the pain is a slice of good pie, eaten with a good friend.