The brutal 2006 murder of actress-turned-writer/director Adrienne Shelly was undoubtedly a tragedy to those who knew her. After watching her last film, which sees posthumous release this weekend, it seems like a bit of a tragedy for filmgoers in general too.
While her sassily charming Waitress isn’t a perfect film, it is the work of a creator who had clearly found a way to balance often discordant elements of drama, comedy, romance and even a little tragedy and, perhaps more importantly, was finding her way towards balancing played-out, overly-commercial studio movie tropes with fresh, quirky, indie-style storytelling choices.
Waitress is a movie that would seem equally at home in a 25-screen multiplex or a grungy art house theater, and it’s hard to watch without feeling at least a little selfishly regretful that Shelly won’t be able to hone these skills even further in the years to come. Waitress is a terrific and highly entertaining film; imagine how great her next one might have been.
Former Felicity Keri Russel stars as Jenna, described by her friends as some sort of “pie genius.” She works as a baker and waitress at Joe’s Pie Diner, somewhere in the deep south where the accents are rather inconsistent.
Pie is quite important to the film, as the near-pornographic opening credits sequence showing softly lit close-ups of pies being made attests; Jenna sees her entire life through the prism of future pie recipes, narrating her moods and dilemmas as oddly named pies.
The source of many of the more imaginatively conceived and named pies is her husband Earl (Six Feet Under‘s Jeremy Sisto), a doofy man-child who alternates from pathetic to funny to menacing from scene to scene. He’s quite a character, and it’s quite a performance, making it rather easy to see why Jenna can’t wait to leave the guy, but also why she’s a little bit scared and feels more than a little big guilty about it.
Her dreams of leaving him are dashed when she finds out she’s pregnant with his baby, but she gets another glimmer of hope from her new OB-GYN, the cute, nervous, passionate and unfortunately married Nathan Fillion (who used to captain the good ship Serenity, and does a charming version of Kyle MacLachlan’s Detective Cooper-as-a-small-town-doctor here).
Also orbiting Jenna are fellow waitresses Dawn (director Shelly herself) and Becky (Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s Cheryl Hines) and surly but wise problem patron Joe (Andy Griffith, turning on the charm in a saccharine role that would probably seem irritatingly contrived if it were played by anyone other than Andy freaking Griffith, who gets a pass on any and all Southern small town saccharine roles).
Shelly too often resorts to some too-cute devices, like Jenna narrating the second half of the film as letters to her unborn baby, but she more than makes up for it by cutting all the sugar with almost equal parts acid. She presents a refreshingly realistic take on unplanned pregnancy and extra-marital affairs, avoiding deluded, moralistic romanticism to focus on the bright, bright whites that can make what can seem like selfish, black acts from the outside seem like the gray areas they really are from the inside.
She keeps the tone close enough to fairy tale and farce territory that an aura of unreality smoothes over all the inconsistencies, and makes any and all poor storytelling choices seem intentional and thus more easily forgivable.