A sweet comic romance about a woman who makes sometimes bittersweet pies, Waitress was shadowed during its theatrical run earlier this year by a behind-the-scenes tragedy: the murder of its 40-year-old writer, director, and costar, Adrienne Shelly, in November 2006, before the film was released. But with its low-budget charm, a vivid comic turn by star Keri Russell, and a feel-good message, Waitress undoubtedly achieved modest commercial success on its own strengths, not out of curiosity about or sympathy for Shelly.
It’s inherently poignant that such a bright (in both senses: The colors glow; the characterizations are clever) and uplifting film should be marked by tragedy, a feeling that becomes more pronounced in the DVD release. Listening to the commentary track by Russell and producer Michael Roiff and hearing them note that Shelly wanted the movie to be like a fairy tale, we wish that Shelly were around to explain her directorial choices and writerly motives.
Her movie is built around a cute device: Waitress Jenna (Russell) works in a small-town diner and, unhappy in marriage to a foul, needy jerk (Jeremy Sisto), bakes pies for pleasure and release, giving them names like ”I Hate My Husband Pie.” Jenna’s waitress pals are Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines as tart Becky, and Shelly herself, in goofy rhinestone horn-rims, as silly Dawn. They all yearn for dreamy romance, and Jenna’s seems to come in the form of a new doctor in town, played by Desperate Housewives’ Nathan Fillion.
Fillion’s Dr. Pomatter is a charmingly awkward leading man in the tradition of Jimmy Stewart — he tends to gawk and stammer slightly as he realizes he’s attracted to Jenna. Russell, who’s moved beyond her Felicity days to become a poised actress who’ll let some simmering anger bubble up in her voice, plays Jenna as a trapped optimist. She knows she has talent — her dream is to win the United States of Pie Contest — and plots to leave her ornery husband. But when she discovers she’s pregnant, and that Dr. Pomatter is married, well, the budding affair seems doomed.
Seen now, the gleaming hues and perfect pies of Waitress may remind you of this season’s new ABC series Pushing Daisies — but unlike that fanciful dramedy, there’s a core of working-class realism to Shelly’s movie. Her characters, for all their camaraderie and playful repartee (Becky calls the diner boss a ”bucket o’ cheese”), know what hopelessness feels like, and they’re desperate to escape it. That Waitress ends on an inevitably cheerful note is undercut by the extras — a number of mini-features, each of which ends up circling back to what an enthusiastic artist Shelly was, and how sad it is that she’s no longer with us. B