Mildly quirky and zealously cute, Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress is the story of three irrepressible gal pals slinging pie and shooting the shit in a postcard-perfect small town diner. Bearing their sitcom burdens lightly, they are: Becky (Cheryl Hines), the feisty, chain-smoking slut; Dawn (Shelly), the quiet geek; and Jenna (Keri Russell), our heroine, a plucky everywoman with life lessons to face, pies to bake, and oodles of clever voice-over to uncork.
Schematic discontent arises from Jenna’s unhappy marriage to Earl (Jeremy Sisto), a poorly written boor who begs for love at the end of a fist. Jenna dreams of winning a local pie contest and skipping town until—o, cruel fate of the Inciting Incident!—an unwanted pregnancy complicates her plans. Cue voice-over and a precious pastry motif: “Recipe for Baby Screaming Its Head Off in the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie…”
Wearily electing to keep the kid while hiding it from Earl, Jenna tumbles into the nervous hands of Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), gentleman OB-GYN. Before you can say “Independent Spirit Awards,” she’s baking pies for Dr. Feelgood and submitting to an examination of the heart. (“I Can’t Have No Affair Because It’s Wrong and I Don’t Want Earl to Kill Me Pie.”)
Will Jenna and the doc’s romance flower? Will Dawn find a boyfriend? Does pie make the world go round? Will there be chipper pop songs and milquetoast feminism? Could someone pass me the barf bucket?
But wait: Waitress makes palatable everything repellent about American independent movies of the Sundance smash type. There’s a fine line between crowd-pleaser and crime against cinema, and to my mind this guileless romcom largely stays the course. Animated by actors enjoying their work, Waitress won me over with its modest ambitions and transparent decency. What can I say? Maybe it’s not my mind that’s talking but my heart, which went out to the movie against all odds, heavy with the burden of writer-director Shelly’s tragic death. Just before the Sundance debut, she was brutally murdered.
The details of that tragedy are too lurid to mention, and largely beside the point. Waitress doesn’t need extra-filmic poignancy to succeed, though it’s impossible not to be moved by its status as final testament. Shelly wrote the script while pregnant with her daughter and, in part, to exorcise her fear of impending motherhood. This heartfelt impulse grounds the picture’s whimsy and compensates for its many schematic qualities. Waitress won’t set the world on fire, but it glows.