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May 16-22, 2007

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Photograph by Alan Markfield
Lower crusts: Cheryl Hines (left), Keri Russell and Adrienne Shelly bake away in blissful ignorance of culinary class oppression in 'Waitress.'

Kiss My Grits

Pie-eyed and pie-faced Keri Russell tries to embody the spirit of the little people in 'Waitress'

By Richard von Busack

WHEN Adrienne Shelly's film Waitress wafted its way up to Sundance, part of its divine afflatus was due to the director/writer's tragic murder late last year. Let's overlook that matter for a second. Like so much of what is honored at Sundance, Waitress looks like Grover Norquist's idea of an indie film: a slice of life about a waitress whose two talents are birthing babies and cooking pies.

For a little movie, it's overproduced like crazy. This working-class waitress lives in a Craftsman bungalow 600 large wouldn't buy. As the Deep South, Southern California gives the worse performance in years—it looks rich, it looks dry, it looks white, it looks secular, it looks like a movie set, even in the exteriors.

Pull back from the scenery and the art direction, though, and note the essence of this patronizing fairy tale. The way Shelly lays it out, waitress Jenna (Keri Russell) is a country girl, a pie-baking sweetie at Joe's Pie Cafe whose answer for life's predicaments is to try to invent a new dessert. As in Like Water for Chocolate and others, cooking interludes interrupt the action as Jenna conceives of pies with zany names: "I Hate My Husband Pie" and "Baby Screaming Its Head Off in the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie."

At the beginning of the film, Jenna has just flunked a pregnancy test. It's all because her estranged husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto), got her drunk and had his way with her.

Jenna won't even think of doing what you might want to do if you are pregnant, you don't want to be and you hate your husband. Waitress can't even bring itself to mention the terrible word "abortion." Shelly sweeps that possibility off the table with the abruptness of a waitress clearing the way for a packed dinner rush.

We're meant to admire Jenna's gumption for going through with it, deciding to link herself for life with a man she hates by having a baby she doesn't want. In this, she receives emotional support from her two sassy colleagues, played with the archness of a brace of drag queens.

Cheryl Hines, looking exactly like a Beverly Hills housewife trying to drawl like a Southerner, plays Becky. The late Shelly plays Dawn, a blonde mouse with eyeglasses. Dawn has a date who starts stalking her ("You won't be able to get rid of me," he promises). It's a mark of this movie's sexual politics that she ends up falling for him because he's so devoted.

Meanwhile, Jenna starts up a heedless, passionate affair with the new obstetrician in town, despite Earl's insane jealousy. As Dr. Pomatter, Nathan Fillion does as best he can with his nice assets, his self-amusement, his Roman nose and his slightly too-long hair. Want to bet that Fillion will probably be taken more seriously for this than for his smarter work with Joss Whedon?

It may even be sadder to see Andy Griffith as a cranky old crock with a heart of caramel. He owns half the town but orders his finicky meals as if he were Jack Nicholson trying to get that chicken sandwich in Five Easy Pieces. But his purpose is all too apparent. And Griffith ramps up the shamelessness by reminding us of his mortality: "Ol' Joe might not have much longer to live."

As for Russell, she's a Mazda Miata playing an Dodge Aries with a bent fender. When Jenna freezes in a dazzling smile because her affair is going well, it's like a quote from that late-night male-potency TV commercial with the new user of Dickrigit or Steelpeen or whatever it's called, grinning like the Joker got him.

Russell has never looked more simple-minded—not even on Felicity. How happy can you be when you're sleeping with a married doctor who has all the power and mobility, while you're waiting tables with a second-trimester belly and cracking ankles? Shelly may have been a wonderful person and a good mother, but she had about as much comprehension of being a waitress as Marie-Antoinette had of being a milkmaid.

Maybe I'm being too literal about Waitress, which might have a grain of emotional truth under the pink and sugar-coated surface. During pregnancy, some women fall in hate with their husbands, since the men get caught up in their own needs for sex and love (the rats, how dare they); by contrast, their obstetricians have all the answers, aren't worrying about money and the future and make none of the demands.

Certainly Sisto's toneless pleading for sex—"Please. Please. Please."—elicited a laugh from the women in the audience. Glad they were amused. Sisto is a street–crazy type of actor who exhausted his range on Six Feet Under, and Earl is such a vicious bastard that Jenna looks even more foolish for sticking it out. The movie seems to be a fantasy about a woman persisting, but she's really waiting for a chance for rescue; the movie is a long celebration of diminished expectations relieved by geezer ex machina.

Waitress doesn't even work as food-porn. The pies appears in odd hues, motor-oil brown and forest green, like the drive-in chow advertised in Grindhouse. Being nice about the circumstances under which this film arrives—overlooking its derivative, TV-ish qualities—it might be a kindness to a dead artist, but it's not doing the living any favors. This stale pastry has all the originality of a convenience-store berry pie.

Movie Times Waitress (PG-13; 104 min.), directed and written by Adrienne Shelly, photographed by Matthew Irving and starring Keri Russell, opens May 18 at selected theaters.

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