Waitress: Starring Nathan Fillion and Adrienne Shelly

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

A superb performance from Keri Russell and a strong turn by costar Nathan Fillion compensate for the Southern condescension of Waitress, a sporadically effecting romantic dramedy. Even with the added poignancy provided by the tragic death of writer-director-actress Adrienne Shelly, the movies attempt to create a more artful variation of the typical small-town womens picture doesn’t result in a fully satisfying experience.

Jenna (Russell) is a waitress working at a local diner in a sleepy Southern community. Her job isnt glamorous and her husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto) may be an overbearing oaf, but she finds escape through her love for making unusual pie concoctions inspired by her personal experiences, such as Kick in the Pants Pie and I Hate My Husband Pie. Though adored by the community for her pie-baking skill, Jenna feels discontentment with her life, especially when she discovers that shes pregnant.

Though unhappy about having a child, Jenna wont even consider an abortion. Instead, she decides to keep the pregnancy a secret as long as she can, while scheming to extricate herself from a terrible marriage. Unexpected assistance with her plans comes in the form of the handsome Dr. Pomatter (Fillion), who has recently moved from Connecticut and just happens to be her new OB-GYN. They feel an instant attraction, but hes married too, and they know how people gossip in small towns. Nonetheless, they dive into an affair while she contemplates leaving her husband and mapping out her future.

Sadly, no discussion about Waitress is complete without noting the unfortunate passing of its independent filmmaker and actress Adrienne Shelly, who was murdered November of last year. Waitress is mostly a light concoction, and so Shellys death lends an unintended darkness to the narrative, although it does intensify the films ruminations about life’s cruel randomness of life.

Her construction of this small town reeks of condescension toward the conservative, homespun delicacy of Southern life. Except for Russells Jenna, almost all the characters exhibit stereotypical local-color behavior, heavy with cutesy quaintness. In the case of Jennas best friend Becky (played by Cheryl Hines), the out-of-touch naivety has an adorable sweetness, but overall, Shelly doesnt bother to look beneath the surface of the shallowly-conceived people, and that lack of curiosity greatly limits the emotional appeal of her film. From the verbally (and sometimes physically) abusive, insecure husband to the grumpy old codger with the secret heart of gold, Waitress trots out one red-state caricature after another.

Shelly brings a lot of care and attention to the central love story between Jenna and Dr. Pomatter. With an absence of moralizing or silliness, she shows how two intelligent, sensitive adults can go along with an affair even when they know the emotional and logistical repercussions of their act. The characters recognize the impossibility of their situation–hes not going to leave his wife, shes about to have a baby with another man–but Shelly has drawn them so sympathetically that its impossible not to root for them. And though the rest of the film settles for a syrupy cuteness, the love story finds true pathos, building to a bittersweet but completely believable conclusion.

Helping the romance are two good performances by promising actors who show a broader range than previously attempted. Nathan Fillion was terrific on the short-lived science-fiction/Western TV hybrid Firefly, where he demonstrated an appealing ironic goofiness while maintaining a nervous romantic spirit underneath. Later in the 2006 monster-horror parody Slither, he further finessed his winking anti-hero persona, suggesting he could become the Bruce Campbell (from the Evil Dead films) for a new generation. With Waitress, Fillion eschews irony for a sincere, square-jawed bumbling charm that makes him a surprisingly effective leading man. Fillion effortlessly portrays his characters grownup sexiness, and yet he retains his usual slightly-apologetic awkwardness, as if Dr. Pomatter doesnt quite realize what a dashing man he is.

With Waitress, Russell continues an impressive string of diverse roles that have kept her from being typecast as the sweet ingnue of Felicity, the TV series where she got her start. Moving seamlessly from the role of sensitive daughter in Mike Binders The Upside of Anger to the hard-as-nails government agent in Mission: Impossible III, Russell has revealed fierceness and depth without sacrificing her softer side. These qualities all come to bear in her role as Jenna, a devoutly loyal, loving woman, who is beginning to demand more from her life. Russell carries Jennas journey from likable naf to strong, independent woman with an almost bottomless sense of kindness and goodwill, even when her character gets involved in adultery.

Occasionally, “Waitress sags with down-home banalities and the sort of hokey life lessons that characters in small-town pictures always dispense. One of the prevailing themes in Waitress is that Jenna needs to realize shes too smart and wonderful for the horrible man she married.

Sadly, the talented Shelly has been killed, without ever realizing the potential she has shown as an actress, writer, and director.


Running time: 104 minutes

Director: Adrienne Shelly
Production companies: Night & Day Pictures
US distribution: Fox Searchlight
Producer: Michael Roiff
Executive producers: Todd King, Jeff Rose, Danielle Renfrew, Robert Bauer
Screenplay: Adrienne Shelly
Cinematography: Matthew Irving
Editor: Annette Davey
Production design: Ramsey Avery
Music: Andrew Hollander


Jenna (Keri Russell)
Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion)
Becky (Cheryl Hines)
Earl (Jeremy Sisto)
Old Joe (Andy Griffith)
Dawn (Adrienne Shelly)