Earl has to die. Or maybe not. The Earl (Jeremy Sisto) who lives inside Waitress, a universe untouched by the wondrous Dixie Chicks, is as stupid, cruel and crabby as the other Earl. But he is surrounded by shiny brightness — bright pastels, bright smiles, bright whisps of dialogue that don’t say so much as they insinuate. This Earl might survive. When he nuzzles up to his beautiful wife Jenna (Keri Russell), she grimaces and endures it. When he insists that the baby she’s carrying never take his place in her affection, she agrees. And when he says he wants her to make him his favorite pie for dinner, she heads to the kitchen.
That’s not to say that Jenna doesn’t come up with her own means of resistance. A piemaker extraordinaire, she invents new recipes in her head, the movie helpfully illustrating so you might salivate over the chocolate and cream and cheese and luscious fruit piled into perfect crusts. She names her acutely and emotionally — I Hate My Husband Pie and the Baby Screaming Its Head Off in the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie — each indicating a moment of crisis, most all of which Jenna endures with the sort of patience and purity attributed to longsuffering women in country-western songs.
Like her lyrical counterparts, Jenna has some edge as well. She’s not entirely thrilled when she and her fellow waitresses, Dawn (director Adrienne Shelly) and Becky (Cheryl Hines), discover she’s pregnant. Growling that it must be the result of her unfortunate drunken evening with Earl some weeks back, Jenna trots off dutifully to see the doctor who birthed her, replaced, at least temporarily, by Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). As soon as he opens his mouth to congratulate her, she stops him dead. “I seem to be pregnant,” she sighs. “It’s not a party, though.” Desperate for a ray of sunshine in her increasingly dreary, if brightly colored, life, Jenna is drawn to the good (and married) doctor, movie-star handsome and instantly devoted to her. She’s suspicious of “That nice guy talking thing you do,” she says, but falls into his arms anyway.
Jenna’s not crazy about her own choices, as she is, in theory, quite against adultery. And her struggle is incessant. When she learns a friend is similarly distracted by a married man, she’s quick to condemn, then just as quick to forgive and rethink. Though she first sees the baby as “an alien and a parasite,” she soon gives over to the movie’s primary non-pie device for expressing Jenna’s conflict — a series of letters to that very baby, lamenting her lack of options, her desire to do right, and her complete frustration over her commitment to Earl. He’s as surly and needy and hateful as he needs to be, begging her not to leave him one moment, then hitting her another. No wonder Dr. Pomatter looks good, less for the sex than for the fact that he’s her first “best friend.”
L-R: Keri Russell and Andy Griffith
Thank goodness Jenna has yet another confidant and mentor, the cranky owner of the diner where she works, Old Joe (Andy Griffith), who lights up this already vivid film every time he pops in for a slice of pie. He notes her post-secret-clinch smudgy lipstick, appreciates her deliciousness, urges her to get free of Earl, and suggests that maybe the baby will be a good thing, after all. Joe’s wisdom is unsurprising, but welcome too, especially as he’s the single character in sight who seems fine where he is, not frantic to find someone else on whom to project his desires.
Joe’s one of many broad gestures in Waitress, which arrives in theaters bearing a particular burden, the murder last year of director/longtime indie actor Shelly. Zingy if obvious, the movie loves its quirky details, the doctor’s amusing stop-motion line delivery, Jenna’s relentless radiance, even Dawn’s own blossoming from pink-faced best friend to blushing bride, when she meets the indefatigable “stalker elf” Ogie (Eddie Jemison), whose “spontaneous poems” make evident his undying love.
The movie celebrates all sorts of sincere and sometimes silly love — friendship, romance, parental, and, no doubt, the love of pie (Dr. Pomatter is at least in part smitten with Jenna’s baking talents: “That pie,” he opines on an early marshmallow number, “was biblically good”). While Waitress does show limits (Earl’s obsessive and possessive love needs rejecting, even if he doesn’t realize it), its outlook is, in the end as throughout, rather giddily bright.