Adrienne Shelly's caloric romantic comedy stars a captivating Keri Russell as an ace Southern pie-baker
If we could magically undo the events of Nov. 1, when actress Adrienne Shelly was punched to death in her Greenwich Village apartment by a construction worker, perhaps we could view her writing/directing debut as the sweet but inauthentic confection I suspect it to be. If I say "suspect," it's because one can't help but filter every frame of "Waitress" through a mist of wistful sighs and teary what-might-have-beens.
Unlike Robert Altman's swan song, a vaudeville on mortality called "A Prairie Home Companion," there are no poetic connections to be drawn between Shelly's thematic concerns and the timing of her film's release. "Waitress" is a romantic comedy about self-empowerment and owning motherhood, dished up with a cuddly Southern twang and slathered over with retro Americana.
It is almost as if Shelly had channeled every one of those eccentric Southern comedies so popular in the Off-Broadway of the '70s -- the ones populated with curmudgeonly geezers, trailer-trash yahoos named Earl and hard-working gals surviving on a dime and a heap of dreams. "Waitress" would work handily as a one-set play, situated in the eatery where the titular Jenna (a captivating Keri Russell, of TV's "Felicity") bakes and serves 27 varieties of pies, not to mention a new one she invents every day with self-revealing names like "Falling in Love Pie" and "I Hate My Husband Pie."
It's easy to discern why the newly pregnant Jenna hates her husband, a loutish, paternalistic man-child named, uh-huh, Earl (Jeremy Sisto). Earl imposes a tyranny of co-dependency, siphoning off every penny of Jenna's tips and depriving her of achieving any sense of self-worth beyond her roles as wife and assistant bread winner.
The idea of bearing Earl's baby is repugnant to Jenna, who finds an unexpected white knight in her dashing new medic, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). Pomatter is a bit neurotic and wears a wedding ring, but that doesn't dissuade our beleaguered pie-maker from slowly falling head over heels (a liberating state of affairs announced in a lusty song by, wink wink, the rock group Cake).
Shelly gussies up old playwriting conventions with knowing stylistic filigree, as if to let us know she's doing a take on them; the production design emulates '50s colors, buses and kitchen appliances with fetishistic care. But the Queens-born actress approaches her stock characters from the outside as types; missing is the idiosyncracy or surprise that makes us look at them anew.
Abetted by Sisto's obvious performance, Earl is as tiresome as his name is condescending. Shelly's other exemplars of Southern manhood include Old Joe (a spot-on Andy Griffith), the diner's persnickety-but-lovable owner, and Cal (Lew Temple), his bossy-but-bearable chef. Buzzing about them in "Alice"-redolent sitcom style are Jenna's ever-supportive waitress buddies, ditsy Dawn (Shelly) and plucky Becky (Cheryl Hines).
Shelly's film genuinely heats up whenever the two leads are circling one another: Russell and Fillion have the sort of chemistry that so often eludes stars of greater magnitude. If their scenes together are any indication, their ill-fated director may well have been romantic comedy's new hope. Many hearts will be stolen by this "Waitress." I left wanting to have an affair with a chocolate cream pie.