Waitress

June, 2007, Comedy

Directed by:Adrienne Shelly

Starring:Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Cheryl Hines, Jeremy Sisto, Andy Griffith, and Adrienne Shelly

The men in writer/director/actress Adrienne Shelly‘s debut film aren’t anything to write home about, so the movie’s women love, interrogate, tolerate and occasionally leave them in this whimsical fantasy that succeeds precisely because it respects its own modest ambitions. Like the much ballyhooed Knocked Up, this comedy examines an unplanned pregnancy, though this time with far more genuine humor and insight. 

Jenna, (Keri Russell) Becky, (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn, (Ms. Shelly) work as waitresses at a diner in the rural south. Despite the fact that she’s known as the best pie maker in the area, Jenna finds her work and her whole life a disaster. She discovers she’s pregnant and concludes it’s a result of a drunken encounter eight weeks earlier with Earl, (Jeremy Sisto) her loutish husband. Trapped in a marriage that bores and terrifies her, Jenna views her impending motherhood as an unmitigated disaster. Becky’s no help; stuck with an unattractive and disabled husband many years her senior, she’s having an affair with Cal, the owner of the diner while Dawn goes on “5-minute interviews”…her version of small town speed-dating.

But when Jenna goes to see her regular ob-gyn, she’s stunned to find that a handsome new doctor has taken over the practice. She’s immediately attracted; he’s everything Earl’s not; attentive, sensitive and willing to actually listen to what she’s got to say. She bakes presents for him and he responds by becoming ever more solicitous until they become lovers, even though he has a wife who’s taking her residency at the local hospital. The affair blossoms until Jenna’s delivery, by which time she’s determined that (1) the doctor’s unavailable, (2) motherhood is surprisingly fulfilling and (3) that men, while occasionally handy for various reasons, aren’t nearly as essential to her happiness as she’d previously imagined. Germaine Greer and Betty Fredian, rejoice; another woman has discovered her destiny…

Ms. Russell, (a Mickey Mouse Club alumna who’s worked primarily in television) blends wide-eyed innocence with trenchant perception as Jenna, creating a performance that’s fresh and consistently surprising. Working with Ms. Shelly’s dialogue, (which mixes “down-home” delivery with pithy, no-nonsense shrewdness) Russell and her co-workers display a provincial feminism of surprising sophistication. They may sound hokey, but their life-choices reflect abundant, self-confident maturity - - in stark contrast to the men surrounding them, who consistently function well below par.

Jeremy Sisto, (much seen on the small screen as a heavy in popular crime series) plays Earl as the nightmare of every woman on the planet; smothering, thoughtless, self-absorbed…and not above using physical abuse to keep his spouse in line. He’s the kind of man who’ll honk to get his wife’s attention even when she’s looking right at him and his reaction to Jenna’s pregnancy suggests he’ll be the real infant she’ll have to deal with after the baby arrives. It’s a terrifically well-written part and Sisto makes the most of it.

Shelly’s too inexperienced, (and probably under-funded) to deliver much visual excitement; she employs a number of over-head shots of pies in the making and her use of the camera is as plain and uncomplicated as the film’s characters appear to be. But underneath the Betty Crocker surface of Waitress there’s enough deadpan humor and spot-on commentary to put most Hollywood comedies to shame.  

On the basis of this amusingly clear-eyed study of the sexes, Ms. Shelly has much to offer audiences…but her life was cut short shortly after filming was completed; she was senselessly murdered in her 4th floor walk-up office in lower Manhattan by a construction worker doing renovations in the building. 

The verdict? A delightfully winning piece of whimsy, clouded only by tragic death of its creator.

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