Calling a movie “quirky” sounds like a putdown or a damning-with-faint-praise, but that's only because it's a term often used by critics reacting to insincere and straining movies that overlay mannerism on thin characters just to be cute. What the late Adrienne Shelly's blue-collar comedy Waitress demonstrates is that, as a writer/director, Shelly understood “quirky” right down to the bone, and that, in her case, the word can be worn as a badge of honor.
Keri Russell gives a deft and winning performance as Jenna, a Southern gal who works as a server in Joe's Pie Diner but who nurtures a poet's heart. She expresses herself through novel pie recipes, an art she learned from her similarly inclined mother, and one she retreats to in Mitty-esque detail as both an escape from and a commentary on her disappointing life.
It's part of Shelly's cleverness that the movie can be synopsized using the names of the pies from Jenna's culinary daydreams. The “I Hate My Husband Pie” (unsweetened chocolate mainly) describes Jenna's bitter marriage to the alternately needy and domineering Earl (Jeremy Sisto) and her thwarted desire for escape. A double-course of Jenna's “I Don't Want Earl's Baby Pie” and “Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie” address the unwanted complication that may keep her in her bad marriage forever. Then her elderly female gynecologist is replaced by the handsome and amusingly bumbling Dr. Pomater ( Firefly 's Nathan Fillion), and “I Can't Have No Affair Because It's Wrong and I Don't Want Earl to Kill Me Pie” is the next item on the menu (“Vanilla custard with banana,” says Jenna in inner monologue. Then desperately: “Hold the banana!”)
Waitress is a real actor's movie, with each part written with great elan to have its own psychology and even its own dialect. Each player gets to be fully dimensional and has bright and defining moments that crystallize into an affectionate if gently satirical ensemble portrait of a certain kind of working-class Southern-ness. It's great fun to see Andy Griffith of all people try on a crusty character part; the mind has to reach back almost to the 1950s and his sinister portrayal of a Huey Long-like demagogue in Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd to remember Griffith diverging so fully from Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, R.F.D. But every actor, including Shelly herself as Jenna's geeky waitress pal Dawn, comes off well in this generous bear hug of a film, a sweet movie made bittersweet by Shelly's murder shortly after editing was completed.
It would be a shame and a crime if that horrific incident were to color people's responses to Waitress , because there ought to be no place for such a skeleton at this warm and human feast. May the joy inside this movie be Shelly's lasting testimonial instead.
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Cheryl Hines, Adrienne Shelly, Jeremy Sisto and Andy Griffith
Director/Screenwriter: Adrienne Shelly
Producer: Michael Roiff
Genre: Drama comedy
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, language and thematic elements
Running time: 104 min.
Release date: May 2, 2007 ltd