Slice of life
The heroine of Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress is Jenna (Keri Russell), working the tables and booths at Joe’s Pie Shop, a cozy little diner somewhere down south. Her co-workers are sarcastic, sassy Becky (Cheryl Hines); Dawn (writer-director Shelly), sweetly insecure and lonely; and Cal (Lew Temple), the manager-cook, forever barking at the girls to quit goofing off and get back to work.
Jenna is the diner’s resident “pie genius,” and her daily creations make her the star of the shop—that, plus the fact that she’s the only waitress who can deal with the place’s cantankerous owner (Andy Griffith) when he comes in with his cranky orders about how he wants his food prepared.
Jenna’s pies spring from her life, and she names them according to where her head is at the moment the idea for the pie pops into it. As the movie opens she’s mulling over a couple of new concepts: the Pregnant-Miserable-Self-Pitying-Loser Pie and the I-Hate-My-Husband Pie. Or maybe the I-Don’t-Want-Earl’s-Baby Pie.
Earl (Jeremy Sisto) is the reason Jenna is miserable and self-pitying and feeling like a loser, the abusive father of the baby she doesn’t want. One night a few weeks back Earl got Jenna drunk—and, as she says, “I shouldn’t drink too much because when I do, I do something stupid like have sex with my husband.”
And as if an unwanted pregnancy weren’t bad enough, Jenna’s gynecologist has semi-retired, leaving her in the hands of a newcomer from Connecticut (Nathan Fillion), so out-of-touch that he knows no better than to congratulate Jenna on being pregnant. She sets him straight, and he’s immediately chastened. “Well, ahem, un-congratulations,” he says. “Un-thank you,” she replies. Jenna isn’t sure she likes this new doctor. What may be worse, she isn’t sure she doesn’t like him—a lot.
It’s difficult to consider Waitress independently of its writer-director’s fate: Shelly was murdered in November 2006 by a workman in her Manhattan apartment building. This gives her last movie, for all its wry humor and brightly colored blandishments, a melancholy, haunted air of lost potential. There’s an urge to regard Waitress as the kind of movie Shelly might have lived to make rather than the promising beginning it really is (actually, this was Shelly’s third feature). The movie has many charms, pleasures and endearing qualities—but they are those of, say, a play written for English class by a particularly bright and intelligent high-school senior rather than the work of a mature artist in full command of her craft.
For one thing, the Queens-born Shelly has a city-girl’s patronizing condescension toward rural types—and “types” is the operative word. Her script is cobbled together from recycled elements cribbed (albeit cleverly) from other movies and TV series: the diner and its employees from Alice, the big-city doctor in a house-front clinic from Doc Hollywood, a Goober Pyle-type suitor Ogie (Eddie Jemison) for the lovelorn Dawn. This movie is the work of someone whose idea of small-town life comes from watching reruns of Hollywood’s backlot Mayberrys. Shelly even trots out Sheriff Andy himself, amusingly morphed into yet another reliable type, the Crusty Old Codger. It’s wry and fun, but Waitress has about as much to do with flyover America as Gilligan’s Island has to do with Polynesia.
Waitress is frankly—no, bluntly—shallow, glib and not fully realized. But its appeal outweighs its flaws, thanks to Matthew Irving’s cheerful cinematography, Shelly’s knack for quirky non-sequitur dialogue, and her gentle hand with a talented cast. (Only Jemison’s simpering Ogie and Sisto’s generic wife-beater Earl fail to rise above the banal clichés of their characters.) Other actors induce sympathetic smiles in the indulgent audience—especially Russell, whose Jenna is a simmering pepperpot adding spice to all around her.
Shelly died at about the age Woody Allen was when he made Love and Death. Who knows where she might have gone from here? What might have been her Annie Hall, her Hannah and Her Sisters? We’ll never know, and that sense of loss adds poignancy to Waitress.