directed by Adrienne Shelly
(20th Century Fox, 2007)

Trapped in a tiny Southern town, waitress Jenna is squirreling away her nickels and dimes, preparing for the day she can leave her buffoon of a husband, Earl.

Jenna spends her days working at the local diner, commiserating with the other waitresses and serving the diner's owner, Old Joe, his pie, OJ and water (two glasses, no ice, served before the pie).

But about those pies ... all of Jenna's desires, her frustrations and her dreams are piled into inventing and baking those pies, each tagged with a name that's much more descriptive than the average lemon meringue. (After she discovers she's expecting Earl's baby -- "I do stupid stuff when I'm drunk," she moans -- the menu features Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie: "Lumpy oatmeal with fruitcake mashed in. Flambe, of course.")

Jenna may not be happy about the pregnancy, but she still heads off to the ob-gyn to get it confirmed. Expecting her long-time doctor, she's surprised by Dr. Pomatter, who's very handsome, very new in town and very married.

It's at this point that Waitress could have become a farce, with hurried exits and slamming doors. Instead, writer/director Adrienne Shelly aims to cook up something more meaningful.

What do you do when you're having the baby of someone you despise, someone who's abusive and needy and, at best, obnoxious? How do you handle being attracted to someone who, by most definitions, should be off-limits? What do you do when you're trapped in a life you can't leave, when you know you're supposed to be somewhere else but can't find your way there?

Shelly, who wrote Waitress while pregnant with her first child, sometimes comes close to crossing the line between quirky and saccharine. And yet, at its heart, Waitress is a warm look at people ultimately trying to act decently no matter what their first intentions may be.

That's thanks in great part not only due to Shelly (who plays awkward pal Dawn), but to Keri Russell as Jenna, Cheryl Hines as waitress Becky, Nathan Fillion as the fumbling, slowly confident Dr. Pomatter and Andy Griffith in a great turn as crochety Old Joe.

There's a sweetness that's hard to resist in Waitress, and it's impossible to mention it without wishing Shelly still were around to expand her beguiling talent: She was murdered in 2006, shortly before Waitress debuted at Sundance, at age 40.

Waitress is just a taste of what we're all missing.

review by
Jen Kopf

25 October 2008

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