Who doesn't love a good piece of pie?
Anybody who read my recent review of Fabián Bielinsky’s stultifying The Aura in these pages knows that I don’t award bonus points to the recently deceased. So it was with some trepidation that I headed to a press screening of Waitress, the movie Adrienne Shelly had just submitted to Sundance when she was senselessly murdered last November. Though I’d been a fan of Shelly-the-actress in her films with Hal Hartley (The Unbelievable Truth, Trust), I’d skipped both of her previous efforts as writer-director, mostly because reviews and word of mouth suggested that they weren’t especially good. Advance word on Waitress was much more enthusiastic, but that could easily be chalked up to sentiment, it seemed to me; the last thing I wanted to do was inform the world that this lovely woman’s final project stinks, and that everybody else must be holding their noses out of respect for her memory.
Color me relieved. Waitress was never going to set the world ablaze, but it’s a funny, charming, refreshingly levelheaded portrait of “a woman in trouble” (to borrow David Lynch’s four-word summary of Inland Empire)—the kind of movie that initially seems a bit clunky and forced but grows on you as you spend more time in the company of its distinctively addled characters. Chief among these is Jenna (Felicity’s Keri Russell), an unhappily married—and very unhappily pregnant—waitress at a small-town diner who’s constantly dreaming up exotic pies and naming them after whatever crisis she’s currently undergoing, e.g. I Don’t Want to Have Earl’s Baby Pie. Abortion, it seems, is out of the question—the possibility is never so much as raised—but Jenna’s red-state family values don’t stop her from embarking upon a guilty, start-stop affair with her hunky but equally married new obstetrician (Nathan Fillion of Slither and Serenity).
This all goes more or less where you’d expect it to, but it’s hard to begrudge familiarity when it’s accompanied by such dizzy warmth and offbeat charm. Russell, not previously considered much more than a fabulous head of hair, fairly bulldozes her way through the title role, expertly suggesting that Jenna is too harried by myriad demands on her time to indulge in reflection; when Shelly finally gives her a moment of stasis—an entire montage of stasis, actually, in which the only thing that changes is our heroine’s expression—the effect is so magical that you can forgive the fact that it’s been set to Cake’s “Short Skirt/Long Jacket.” And while Jenna’s abusive redneck husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto), is a walking cliché, few filmmakers have had the courage to depict impending motherhood with such sardonic disdain, even in the ultimate service of what appears to be Shelly’s valentine to her own children.
Still, I must be getting soft, because my favorite element of Waitress was Shelly’s own performance as Dawn, Jenna’s mousy colleague at the diner. Sporting retro cat-eye specs and slinging a broad Southern accent, Shelly is essentially playing Vera to Russell’s Alice and Cheryl Hines’ Flo, and she’s every bit as endearing. (That said, it’s in these scenes that the film most resembles a moderately entertaining sitcom rather than a sharp indie drama.) When Dawn begs Jenna to give her a quick restroom makeover before a date, then looks in the mirror and exclaims, “Wow, you made me almost pretty,” you can hear a lifetime of disillusion packed into those half-dozen words, tinged with a tiny speck of hope. In the course of Waitress’ 104 minutes, I fell for the actress again; when the final shot of Dawn showed her waving goodbye to the camera—well, I can’t speak for the rest of the house, but there certainly wasn’t a dry eye in my face.
Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Jeremy Sisto
Directed by Adrienne Shelly