Waitress can’t help but come laden with built-in poignancy: it’s the final film from actress/writer/director Adrienne Shelly, who was murdered in her Manhattan home late last year. Tricky though it is to divorce the movie from its tragic context, it delivers – despite flaws – on its own terms.
Shelly gives herself a minor role as Dawn (a shrinking violet who eventually blooms), but the star of the show is Keri Russell as her fellow roadside-diner server Jenna. A ‘pie genius’ who is locally renowned for her creative baking, Jenna is also trapped under the crust of an abusive marriage to bad ol’ boy Earl ( Jeremy Sisto), who gives her an undesired bun in the oven. (To commiserate, she makes an ‘I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie’.) Still, at least being in the pudding club gives her the perfect excuse to see Dr Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), the klutzy but caring (and married) obstetrician with whom she enjoys an impulsive fling.
Shelly layers the film with tasty ingredients: from the sunny, saturated hues of Matthew Irving’s cinematography to the funky strains of Cake’s ‘Short Skirt/Long Jacket’ (the backing for a priceless post-coital montage sequence). Then there’s the palate-teasing pies themselves: open-topped or latticed, oozing with mashed blackberries, brandy-dusted pecans, sensual folds of vanilla custard...
Sorry, drifted there for a minute. But then so does the plot, around the hour mark. The tone isn’t too settled, either, swaying from an ironic distance akin to the work of Shelly’s mentor Hal Hartley to a sentimentality that’s just shy of saccharine. Nonetheless, the performers supply a slightly flaky frame with deep filling: Fillion handsomely balances goofy and sensitive; Andy Griffith (in a rare role) transcends twinkly cliché as the sage crank who owns the diner; while Russell blends steel, smarts and sexiness into a signature, career-lifting turn. Even Sisto shades a little grey into the thuggish boor of his controlling spouse. Jenna’s change of heart regarding motherhood might not surprise, but a climactic twist of bittersweetness allows Waitress to have its feelgood ending and eat it.