Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Waitress (review)

Here's my review of Waitress, as published in Las Vegas City Life:

American pie
Adrienne Shelly's final film is an affecting slice of small-town life


DAWN AND BECKY, two of the three food servers at the center of Waitress, have plenty of their own troubles, as they tell colleague Jenna. Dawn (Adrienne Shelly) -- mousy, bespectacled and, as she describes herself, pasty white -- is lonely-hearted but so emotionally guarded, she schedules five-minute dates so that not too much can go wrong. Becky (Cheryl Hines) -- sassy, brassy and a chain-smoker -- pines for sexual satisfaction unavailable from her older, incontinent husband. Chatting during a break from their work, they swear they still wouldn't trade places with young, newly married Jenna (Keri Russell), the most talented pie-maker in their Southern small town. Why? It's because of Jenna's possessive, terribly jealous and cruel husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto), who just happens to pull up, honking his horn relentlessly, demanding his wife get into the car, as Dawn and Becky are finishing their diatribe about him.

That's just one of many brief but expertly handled scenes -- simultaneously sad and funny, poignant but not sentimental -- kneaded, filled and, yes, baked to perfection in the third and final movie directed by Shelly. The talented young filmmaker, perhaps best known for her acting turns in Hal Hartley's The Unbelievable Truth and Trust, was murdered in her New York office after Waitress was completed but before its premiere at Sundance.

Knowledge of that awful back story can doubtlessly incline a viewer to vote for the movie's success. But Waitress hardly needs that extra vote of confidence. Shelly's film is an affecting piece of Americana, a bright comedy built on the terrific, surprisingly complex lead performance of Russell, formerly of television's Felicity. The movie also benefits from the capable supporting work of Shelly and Hines, the latter impressively shifting from her role as Larry David's whiny voice-of-reason wife in HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm; a sly and very funny turn by an aged Andy Griffith as diner owner Old Joe, cantankerous and wily; an infectious sense of whimsy; and a well-written script that carefully straddles the hip/square border, delivering entertainment that's smart but decidedly unpretentious, quirky without being overly contrived.

The pregnant Jenna's oddly named concoctions -- "I Don't Want Earl's Baby Pie" is the name she gives to one such baked delight -- are so tasty, she fully expects to win a local bake-off and fund an escape from her brutish husband. In another director's hands, that plotline would have sufficed to drive the story. Shelly, though, zags where she might have zigged, offering several domestic scenes that almost -- if not quite -- demonstrate how Jenna might have been conned into marrying Earl, an emotionally disturbed guy who couches his threats in poor-pitiful-me language: At one point, he forces Jenna to promise not to love her baby more than she loves her husband. He's a disaster, a potential spouse-killer, but she's something of an enabler, someone who long ago misread his nutty neediness as a passing byproduct of extreme ardor.

That's not Jenna's only dramatic crisis. There's also the matter of an extramarital suitor in town, Jenna's new ob-gyn Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), a handsome fellow who's all but tongue-tied whenever his new patient visits for a consultation; during one of Jenna's increasingly frequent appointments, he can't stop talking. Jenna's transformation from sad-sack wife to love-struck adulterer is one of the film's comic highlights: First, a look of shock registers on her face, plastering itself there before turning into an expression of pure joy, which stays in place day and night, all through her shifts at the diner, where manager Cal (Lew Temple) constantly barks orders at his waitresses

Waitress brings to mind the '70s/'80s sitcom Alice, and the film that inspired it, Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore -- particularly the debt Dawn and Becky owe to their predecessors, Vera and Flo, respectively. But Shelly injects her story with a loopy sensibility of her own making, the loss of which ought to be mourned as her final gift is celebrated.


Keri Russell, Cheryl Hines, Adrienne Shelly. Directed by Adrienne Shelly.

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