Any chef can tell you that the secret to good food is in the mix. The sweet must be offset with the bitter, the tart with the cheesy, the light with the rich. But even the best culinary alchemy can still go wrong if it’s left to cook for too long.
It is advice that Adrienne Shelly might well have taken in what was tragically to be her last film before she was murdered in 2006. Cooking is at the very heart of Waitress, whose main character Jenna (Keri Russell) is an unhappy wife, a reluctant mother-to-be, a conflicted adulteress and, yes, a waitress – but most of all a ‘pie genius’. There are pies at the film’s beginning, pies at its end, and in between we regularly hear Jenna’s fancifully named recipes and other characters’ rhapsodic responses to them (“that pie was biblically good”, “what you do with food is unearthly”). The closing credits even list a ‘pie gaffer’ and a ‘pie mistress’ amongst the crew.
As a metaphor for Jenna’s saving grace – her battered capacity for nurturing, generosity and love – all these pies certainly hit the spot, but they also become a bit cloying. It is a problem that affects the film more generally: for here all manner of good ideas just end up being overdone.
As Jenna’s immature, controlling husband Earl, Jeremy Sisto finds a perfect balance between comic odiousness and never-quite-sympathetic vulnerability – but within the first ten minutes of the film we have already learnt everything we need to know about the character, and he goes no further. Similarly, the flirtatious banter between Jenna and her new gynaecologist Dr Jim Pomatter (Nathan Fillion) is at first charming, quirky and sharp, but soon annoys through sheer repetition.
Subplots involving the romantic lives of Jenna’s waitressing colleagues Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Shelly in her last ever performance) seem mere filler rather than essential ingredients. In fact, the only character here going on any sort of journey is Jenna herself – but where she is headed is so well telegraphed from the outset that the 104-minute duration becomes hard to justify.
Waitress might be described as romantic comedy with a feminist twist. Here a lonely woman overcomes the tempestuous beginnings of a relationship to find true love – not, however, with Mr Right, but rather with the baby that she herself is carrying. The film’s emphasis on feminine solidarity and mother-daughter relations underscores its slant, although the effect is somewhat diluted by a plot which sees Jenna, for all her inner strength and obvious talents, still having to rely on an elderly male benefactor (Andy Griffith) to secure her happy ending.
There is lots to like about Waitress. Shelly’s dialogue is always smart, the performances are engaging, and while the ending is a little saccharine, there is more than enough small-town misery to get us there. Still, no amount of quality service can cover up a slice of life that has been so overbaked.