(It's hard to review Waitress without mentioning Adrienne Shelly's tragic death, especially since there is a tendency among critics to overpraise those who have died, or at the very least to overlook their possible failings. I'm trying hard to keep this in mind as I write this review.)
When it comes to films, I've never really had all that much faith in labels, categories and genres and have typically found that those movies which are so easily categorized - your romantic comedies, your slashers, your techno-thrillers - are usually quite formulaic, dull and most likely intended for mass consumption. Your average rom-com, for instance, is often very formulaic and it usually holds very few real surprises. It obeys the rules and laws of the story-telling conventions that audiences are used to seeing. These formulas are not necessarily bad things; they are, I think, the shapes of modern myths, the stories that a culture tells itself over and over, either to reinforce a certain belief or, perhaps, to delude itself into believing a pretty fairy-tale.
In the world of romantic comedies, these myths are quite powerful and are proven again and again by the repetitive nature of the genre. You expect characters to behave in certain ways; you anticipate their flaws and feel warm and fuzzy when they overcome them and finally find true love. Waitress, however, subverts these familiar conventions. It never does so in a rudely obvious or pretentious manner, though; rather it is sly, sweet and intelligent in all the right ways and is perhaps the more heartwarming and emotionally authentic movie experience you could hope for in 2007.
Keri Russell plays the enchanting Jenna, a pie diner waitress who dreams of one day escaping her emotionally stunted husband, Earl, played by Jeremy Sisto. When to her dismay she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, she meets Dr. Pomatter, played perfectly by Firefly's Nathan Fillion, a married man with whom she begins an awkward yet entirely affectionate love affair. Like most rom-coms, the movie sets itself up as a "true love" story in which the characters must overcome greats odds and obstacles in order to be with each other. The characters of Jenna and Dr. Pomatter are so perfectly suited for each other that you can't help falling in love with them and hoping for their success. Rather like last year's The Last Kiss, though, Waitress is not the "chick-flick" it initially appears to be or that it is marketed as; it in fact subverts, or at least deliberately ignores, the conventional prince-charming fairy tale and replaces it with its own fairy tale, one that is mature and heartwarming in ways that most rom-coms never even imagine.
I don't usually talk too much about individual actors in a review since I'd rather devote time to talking about the the whole picture than about the individual components that compose it, but I do want to make a quick note about the two leads, since they are both very, very good. Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion flex dramatic muscles that I didn't know they had and both deserve much more recognition than they have perhaps so far received, especially Fillion who, though he is well known within genre circles for his work on Firefly, is not necessarily known in the mainstream where he proves with Waitress that he rightly deserves to be.
Waitress appears to be the type of movie that many moviegoers, especially guys without dates, would generally avoid, which is a great shame. This is a genuinely beautiful film and it deserves to be seen by anyone who has even a little bit of film appreciation.