Adrienne Shelly's "Waitress" has so much more going for it than what the surface suggests. Past the white picket fences and beneath the gee-willickers exterior lies a romantic comedy that leads with a passion and honesty few in the genre even bother to pursue. It's candy, but with a deliciously sour center.
Stuck in a marriage to a creep (Jeremy Sisto) and newly pregnant, Jenna (Keri Russell) is looking for a doorway out of her life. Distracting herself with a tedious job as a waitress and dreaming of devastating pie recipes, Jenna locates some ray of hope in the arms of Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), the town physician. Now Jenna must come to a decision: stay unhappy and safe, or dare to make her own way.
At first, "Waitress" comes across as one of those featherweight fantasy films where the lovelorn lady meets the knight of her dreams. The picture is that, but pitched at the screen with a wicked curveball, courtesy of Shelly's astute, inventive screenplay.
"Waitress" isn't all that easy to clarify, mashing up bits of down-home atmosphere, sensuality through the art of baking, and depictions of domestic abuse and other marital bear traps. Much like Jenna's luxurious pies, it's a strange concoction that takes a few bites to get acquainted with, but once the sweet taste is established, it's impossible to get it out of your system.
In her third directorial effort, Shelly shows great command behind the camera. "Waitress" is a little idiosyncratic piece of fun, and Shelly knows every curl of it. In her casting, there's a troupe falling over themselves to get in on the good times. From the charming lead work of Russell to a supporting appearance by Andy Griffith (as the diner owner and Jenna's secret, cranky admirer), Shelly gives all the actors their moment of sugared distinction.
The director is also willing to get a little dark with this material, exploring Jenna's vicious distaste for motherhood and especially in the overall mood of infidelity that permeates the picture. Seriously, everyone is cheating in the flick, yet you waltz out of the theater with a miraculously clear understanding of motivations and purpose. It's a celebration of marital demolition with a wink in its side pocket and served with a cherry on top.
Shelly also shows amazing skill in the art of the comedic and cinematic repetition. The director returns to visual gags and music cues over and over, creating a friendly connection with the viewer through this neighborly echo. It's an efficient way to set tone and allows for characters to be established with minimal fuss. "Waitress" is adored with this sensibility, and I believe that's why the finished product is so atypically soothing. Shelly leads with her heart and her skill, and that comfort shines in the picture, erasing any strain of convention that might flutter past the senses.
The bittersweet coda to "Waitress" is that Shelly never received the chance to watch her film delight millions. Senselessly murdered in 2006, the filmmaker/actress demonstrated tremendous progress as a director with this feature, while also putting in a soft reminder just how sweet a screen presence she held. She will be missed, but as a final piece of entertainment, "Waitress" is finely tuned, assured, wonderfully silly, and every bit as lovely as Shelly was.
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