The Yankees haven't given me much reason for good cheer this week (one friggin' hit?!?) so after the latest loss, La Chiquita and I went out, first to the greenmarket at Union Square, then to Casa Mono, and finally to the movie theater, in the hope of catching Ratatouille. No joy (Brad Bird's latest wasn't even at the theater) but we happened to spot Adrienne Shelly's Waitress playing on a single screen in the megaplex, playing in less than 45 minutes.
Now, based on the plot summary, Waitress is the kind of movie I'd usually burn rubber to get away from: southern waitress in a bad marriage, with a knack for baking pies, learns she's pregnant, and starts fall for her OB-Gyn; she works in a diner chock-full of colorful characters who'll help her through this ordeal, and maybe she'll learn a valuable less...OK, are you getting that bad chick flick feel? That Steel Magnolias/Fried Green Tomatoes/Spitfire Grill feeling? That "I'm going to be thrown into a vat of pure estrogen; please pray for me," feeling?
So why did I buy tickets for this, instead of distracting La Chiquita and dragging her away at top speed? Mainly, it was because the movie had been recommended by my homeboys at Filmspotting, who said it was the best date film they'd seen in a while. Even with the good reviews, I wasn't expecting too much from this film. That is, until about the twenty minute mark, when I realized I'd been laughing so hard I couldn't breathe. I haven't laughed this much since I saw Hot Fuzz (still my favorite movie of this summer).
The easy answer for why this movie was so good was a pair of strong lead performances by Keri Russell (as the titular waitress) and Nathan Fillion (as the doctor). As a couple, they have good chemistry, and elevate some fairly standard romantic comedy material through sheer combustibility. Anyone who saw Fillion in Firefly knew that he had leading man presence and the comedy chops to pull off this role; Russell is a pleasant surprise in a role that requires her to do much more than just look pretty for the camera.
But the performance that moves this film beyond the ordinary comes from Jeremy Sisto as Russell's abusive husband Earl. Earl could have been a simple bruiser or a cartoon villain--the two options most people go for when portraying the stock character of bad southern husband--but Sisto (and writer/director Shelley) doesn't let the audience off that easy. In Sisto's hands, Earl is the scariest kind of nutjob--one so unmoored from reality, you have no idea what he's going to do next. When you expect him to be happy, he's petulant; when you expect his fists to start flying, sometimes they do, but just as often, he'll break down crying. Sisto brings enough humor to the performance that the movie never hits that Lifetime Movie of the Week level of melodrama, but at the same time, you can't dismiss the character as a joke.
The menace Sisto brings to the movie, and Russell's matter-of-fact reaction to that menace, add more spice to Waitress than you'd expect from a romantic comedy about a pie-making southerner. The ending dents this a bit by wrapping things up a little too tidily. Still, highly recommended, particularly if it's date night.