Keri Russell. What do those two words mean to you? Before seeing waitress the name would mostly conjure the image of a pretty young woman with long waves of golden hair standing at a city street corner, waiting for the light to change. Maybe you'd recall that one season of Felicity began with the lead having lopped doff her trademark locks. You might even picture a face wash commercial or two. Was she any more relevant than Charisma Carpenter, Kristin Kreuk, or any of the other interchangeably pert, attractive actresses introduced to America by the second tier television networks? I would have answered probably not.
Waitress is a showcase for Russell and makes the argument for unorthodox casting. The entire cast is constructed from actors primarily known from television. Keri Russell had a small (though memorable) part in Mission Impossible III...and that is about it as far as full length features.
She arrives here like a frosted glass of limeade on a scorching summer day, and she carries Adrienne Shelly's sweet and sour little fable on her perfect, slender shoulders. I dare you to sit through Waitress and not fall for Russell. Her face is open like a baby's and sculpted like a goddess'. Her features are, for my money, flawless. And that is just the window dressing.
What is even more astounding is her charm and talent as a film actress (a quality that does not always translate from small to big screen. See Katie Holmes). Because she is new to the game, she does not completely sparkle like a movie star (yet), but Waitress does not require her to (and wouldn't want her to either.) The film is small town quaint and tender. While the story and thematic elements certainly do not lack depth or passion, the characters are merely eking out meager existences, searching for a slice of happiness (or contentment, depending on one's philosophical definitions).
And speaking of slices, one of the premium touches of Waitress (and giving it much of its sumptuous flavor) are the pies. Pies are a big deal in Waitress. Russell's Jenna works at a diner that serves up her signature dessert treat; the ingredients of which are concocted in revealing moments (epiphanies). A common interlude in the film is the POV shot of a pie being made as Jenna's voice lists the delicious, telling ingredients. Cherries and custard equal love. Dark chocolate and mince meat, despair. The pies are one of many disarmingly endearing diversions in Shelly's script. Her writing is quirky, often bittersweet, sometimes malevolent, but there is an inner optimism that shines through.
Jenna's husband (terrifically realized and nuanced by Jeremy "Kidnapped" Sisto) is legitimately a loathsome character. Adultery is prevalent in the movie and treated as harmless as office gossip. Despite the film's poster art, this is not the film for a Church picnic crowd.
The film is essentially about a hopeless misanthrope who suffers within the walls of her life. Her waitress friends played by Cheryl (Curb Your Enthusiasm) Hines and Shelly are somewhat comforting, but at the same time preoccupied with muddling their own way through. When Jenna becomes pregnant her sorrows are doubled.
Shelly wants us to believe that Jenna is so pessimistic and her situation is so dire that she rejects her maternal instinct and is indifferent to the life growing inside her. Of course this is all lip service. Granted, there is mean spiritedness running amuck, but Shelly conforms (thankfully?) in the end and provides the clichéd happy ending. Because, though both are equally stunning, Kerri Russell's smile is preferable to her frown.
Rounding out the story is a brief, yet steamy, affair between Jenna and her OBGYN (strangely portrayed by strange actor Nathan (Desperate Housewives) Fillion. Another welcome casting choice is Andy Griffith (Matlock himself) as the sage owner of the diner.
Think of Russell, Sisto, Fillion, Griffith, and the rest of the gang as the ingredients. Shelly is the pastry chef. Waitress is the pie and a far tastier one than we would have expected.