May 10, 2007

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Waitress (PG-13)
Keri Russell is a slyly sweet pie genius who has deeply conflicted feelings toward her unborn baby in the cute but weird tale of small-town woe that is Waitress, the final movie written and directed by Adrienne Shelly.

If you’ve heard about this movie it’s probably because of Adrienne Shelly, who has a supporting role in this movie and died a weird, sad death in November 2006, before her film could hit the festival circuit and win all sorts of acclaim. It’s a shame because Shelly here offers up a movie that shows the promise of future stories full of strange, appealing characters.

Jenna (Russell) is an unhappy woman stuck in a miserable marriage. Her husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto) is a needy, demanding, violent, hillbilly-ish thug who resents even the modest waitress job she has and her small circle of friends because it turns her attention from him. Jenna, however, is determined to keep her job. In addition to supplying her with a bit of cash that she can hide (for when she gets a shot at running away), the job offers her the friendship of fellow waitresses Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Shelly) and an opportunity to invent a wondrous variety of pies. There are the savory ones (quiches, for example), the sweet ones (a fallin’ in love chocolate pie) and the fancifully named ones (mermaid pie, about which we learn only that it’s covered in colorful marshmallows). Thinking up new pies calms her down — I Don’t Want To Have Earl’s Baby And Be Tied To Him Even More Pie (approximate title) is a ham and brie quiche that she comes up with after she watches the two lines appear and learns that she does indeed have a pie in the oven.

Jenna decides with a kind of steely acceptance that she’s not going to end her pregnancy but she isn’t one bit happy about her baby’s existence. “Dear Baby” is how she addresses it in a series of letters she writes to it and “damn baby” is how she thinks of it when its presence starts to complicate her life. A complication more pleasant than not is Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), the new doctor who begins a strange affair with Jenna. She says wants nothing to do with him and yet she all but pounces on him every time they meet. Both are married and both are besotted with each other.

Though this affair offers her a bit of sunshine in an otherwise dismal (though cheerily dismal) life, Jenna remains stuck. She hides money and schemes about entering a pie contest, the prize money of which could fund a new life. Can the affair give her the push she needs? Or will her kick in the pants (another pie name) have to come from somewhere else?

Waitress is itself a kick in the pants — with pastel-tinted pie humor interwoven with scenes of domestic violence and long awkward stretches where some can’t-put-your-finger-on-it quality of the dialogue just doesn’t match the performances and general tone of the movie. It’s like a pie made of lemon custard and chocolate cheesecake topped with a liqueur-flavored whipped-cream — it probably won’t be bad, per se, but there will be plenty of odd-tasting forkfuls.

Despite this weirdness, Waitress does have its shining moments. Russell and Fillion have a strange, charming chemistry that works with the circumstances of this confused romance. Russell has even better chemistry with her two friends, each of whom is struggling to make some contentment out of a life that is less than she’d hoped it would be. And then there’s Jenna’s sassy friendship with Old Joe (Andy Griffith). Griffith gives his character a perfect mix of curmudgeonness, corn-pone sensibilities and regret to make his performance just fun to watch.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Waitress is its marketing, which hypes some kind of feel-good pie cutesiness that doesn’t give you a good sense of the kind of mixed-up, sad but hopeful movie Waitress really is. Ignore the goody-two-shoes movie poster and the politeness-inspiring story of Adrienne Shelly. Waitress is a movie that deserves to be enjoyed and complained about for its own merits. B

Rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and thematic elements. Written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, Waitress is an hour and 44 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Fox Searchlight Pictures. The movie opens in the Boston area on May 11.