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WAITRESS (***)

Movie Review by: Jim "Good Old JR" Rutkowski
Written & Directed by: Adrienne Shelly
Starring:
Keri Russell, Jeremy Sisto, Cheryl Hines
Running time: 104 minutes Released: 05/02/07
Rated PG-13 f
or sexual content, language and thematic elements.
"...it's a lovely motion picture that succeeds within its own self-contained bubble."
It's a heartwarming fairy tale scenario. Pregnant with her first child (a girl), a little-known actress pens a screenplay that manages to corral all her fears, anxieties and optimistic impulses regarding this life-altering event. She later turns that story into a film, not only serving as scripter but also as director and costar. The movie gathers positive reviews at Sundance, and then is positioned as a sleeper alternative to the usual big-budget summer behemoths. And everyone lives happily ever after.

Only something went tragically wrong along the way. The 40-year-old Adrienne Shelly, an indie staple back in the 1990s, had the baby and made the film, but rather than having the rest of a long life to enjoy both, she was murdered last November by a 19-year-old construction worker in her New York office. (The Ecuadorian illegal immigrant allegedly knocked her out during an argument over noise and, fearful of deportation, unsuccessfully staged it to look like she had committed suicide by hanging herself.)

One's initial impulse with Waitress, therefore, is to cut it several hundred yards of slack, to view it through a sentimental prism which would render any criticism of the picture about as cruel as burning a puppy with a cigarette. Yet here's the good news about the film: It doesn't require even a centimeter of slack, as it's a lovely motion picture that succeeds within its own self-contained bubble.

This sweet saga's protagonist is played by Keri Russell, the former Mouseketeer and Felicity star whose brief spots in movies (Mission: Impossible III, The Upside of Anger) only hinted that she might be worthy of larger film roles. In that respect, Waitress is to Russell what The Good Girl was to Jennifer Aniston: a choice opportunity for a television beauty to flex her thespian muscles. And like Aniston, Russell doesn't disappoint, delivering a nicely modulated performance that keeps viewers in her character's corner every step of the way.

Russell stars as Jenna, one of the waitresses employed at Joe's Pie Diner. The eatery, one of those quaint establishments tucked away in a small burg in fly-over country, is most notable for its 27 varieties of pies that are made fresh daily. In addition, Jenna creates a new pie every day, each given a quirky name depending on her mood and her present life situation (e.g. "I-Hate-My-Husband Pie," "Naughty Pumpkin Pie"). For friendship, she turns to her fellow staffers, the chatty Becky (Cheryl Hines, partially channeling Flo from the old Alice TV series) and the mousy Dawn (Shelly herself). But for love and affection, she's out of luck, since she's married to a domineering redneck named Earl (Jeremy Sisto), the sort of Neanderthal who orders her to hand over all her earnings at the end of each day and who's so controlling that he won't even allow her to enter a pie-making contest that offers a substantial amount of prize money.

Life with Earl is unendurable enough, but matters become even more complicated once she discovers she's pregnant (as she bitterly recalls, it happened on that one night when Earl got her drunk). She visits her regular doctor, only to discover that she's been replaced by Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), who just moved to the area with his wife. Medical ethics and marital vows be damned, the pair quickly fall into a tentative affair, one that's marked with as many moments of hesitancy and doubt as it is with steamy trysts. As for the baby, Jenna won't consider getting an abortion, but she also makes it clear that she has no use -- and no love -- for this unwanted infant. All she dreams about is leaving Earl and starting a new life, perhaps even one with Dr. Pomatter.

As writer, Shelly makes some missteps when it comes to her attempts to throw some surprises into the basic framework; for instance, Becky keeps babbling about a "secret" that's obvious from the get-go, while there's no question where the windfall will come from that might allow Jenna to escape her drab lot in life. But where Shelly excels is in her ability to dig beneath sitcom scenarios and focus on some hard truths that all too often define one's choices in life. Two of the three waitresses engage in affairs while the third ends up with a dweeb who almost makes Norman Bates look like a catch by comparison. But Shelly never judges these people or their actions, understanding that folks with limited options will often grasp at whatever straws are placed in front of them, as they realize that they have to work with what they've got (as one character states when asked if he's happy, "I'm happy enough"). Shelly's generosity even extends to the largely one-dimensional character of Earl; when he tells Jenna that he loves her, you don't exactly feel sorry for him but you do realize that in his limited world view, he probably does feel affection for his wife but is too much the lumbering misogynist to properly express it (kudos to Sisto for punching across these brief flashes of skewed humanity).

As stated, Russell is resplendent in the leading role, but let's also be sure to heap copious praise on wily vet Andy Griffith. He appears in a few scenes (not enough, by my count) as Old Joe, the diner's cantankerous owner. Naturally, he's disliked by everyone except Jenna, who recognizes the heart of gold beating beneath that cranky exterior. It's a stock role, of course, but Shelly provides the character with some salty wisecracks, a few engaging set-pieces (a couple involving the reading of his horoscope) and a nice monologue in which he attempts to instill Jenna with the sense of self-esteem that he realizes is integral to her growth as her own person. The beloved actor handles the part beautifully, and we're lucky that he's still with us at the age of 80. It's a shame we won't be able to say the same about the lovely and talented Adrienne Shelly.

WAITRESS 2007 Fox Searchlight Pictures.
All Rights Reserved

Review 2007 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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