Whenever Sundance rolls around on the cinematic calendar, without fail, there is always a film or two that captures attention based purely on its back-story. Arguably one of Sundance 2007's most tragic off-screen tales is that of writer/director/actress Adrienne Shelly. Allegedly murdered in November 2006 by an 19-year-old construction worker in her Manhattan apartment, the film that would turn out to be one of the festival's low-key successes and Shelly's breakout achievement was inescapably (and perhaps unfairly) tinged by sadness.
Yet Waitress is itself an almost unbearably melancholy film, albeit one spiced with a dash of hope; it's Shelly's fifth directorial work in a career that stretched back to the indie revolution of the early Nineties. Waitress is the story of Jenna, a woman (Keri Russell) trapped by life and circumstance in some nameless Southern town and the wife to the thoroughly loathesome Earl (Jeremy Sisto, who could play this role in his sleep). Jenna escapes by baking delectable pies with cloying titles (most of the names -- like "I Don't Want Earl's Baby" or "Marshmallow Mermaid" -- sound a tad too precious) and commiserating with her fellow waitresses at Joe's Pie Diner, owned by a gruff curmudgeon (Andy Griffith). Her co-workers -- the brassy Becky (Cheryl Hines) and the timid Dawn (Shelly) -- help pass the days, concoct her unique pies and deal with an unexpected pregnancy.
Jenna's gynecologist, Dr. Jim Pomatter (Nathan Fillion, continuing to prove that he's one of the most underrated character actors in Hollywood), captures her heart and the pair soon engages in a torrid, secret affair. To reveal any more of the simple pleasures that unfold over the course of Waitress would spoil this cinematic treat, but Shelly's distinct creative voice keep the film from sliding into the ditch of sentimentality, although there are a few stilted moments sprinkled throughout. The film's bleak scenarios are met with snarky, wry humor -- it's hard to watch the proceedings and wonder just how much of Shelly is up there onscreen. The highest compliment I could pay Waitress is that it feels unshakably authentic, as though Shelly had lived some of the very situations that Jenna in which finds herself.
Tonally, Waitress struggles to balance the light and the dark -- indeed, Russell's aloof performance seems out of sync with the rest of the cast, which sets a light, almost farcical mood, although the film's conclusion reveals her motivations for staying at arm's length. Waitress isn't an exceptional film, but merely one in which a lot works well. It's bittersweet that Adrienne Shelly can no longer share her talents with us; this distinctive, quirky dramedy suggests that she was only just beginning to focus them.
In the spirit of my DVD Talk colleagues' decision to withhold final judgement on the visual quality of Fox screeners, I'm following suit. Waitress is presented in a mostly fine-looking 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, but the disc I received for review suffered from a bit of grain and lots of smearing and artifacting. I'm almost positive these flaws won't appear on the final, retail version of the disc and should a final copy be provided, I'll amend my review accordingly.
Although Waitress is a film driven primarily by dialogue and a near-constant wall of anonymous pop songs, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is underwhelming. While its softness could be a result of the screener disc's quality, I found the sound to be on the quiet side, so much so that I had to crank the volume up quite a bit. An optional Spanish Dolby 2.0 stereo track is included, as are optional English, Spanish and French subtitles.
The supplements strike a nice balance between remembering the brief, artistic life of Adrienne Shelly and exploring the nuts and bolts of making this particular film. Leading off, producer Michael Roiff and Keri Russell contribute a low-key commentary track while the 10 minute, 17 second "This Is How We Made Waitress Pie" is a standard making-of featurette. The six minute, 50 second "Written and Directed by Adrienne Shelly: A Memorial" is a touching look at the writer/director's efforts on set; the five minute, 44 second "Hi! I'm Keri, And I'll Be Your Waitress" is a Russell-centric featurette; the two minute, 53 second "The Pies Have It!" is a fun bit where cast members describe their favorite pies. A trio of Fox Movie Channel promos -- "In Character With" -- are included: Keri Russell (three minutes, 51 seconds); Cheryl Hines (three minutes, 49 seconds) and Nathan Fillion (two minutes, 58 seconds). A 47-second promo for the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, featuring remarks from Russell, completes the disc.
Waitress isn't an exceptional film, but merely one in which a lot works well. It's bittersweet that Adrienne Shelly can no longer share her talents with us; this distinctive, quirky dramedy suggests that she was only just beginning to focus them. Recommended.