There's a shadow over Waitress -- the November 2006 murder of writer-director Adrienne Shelly, which came after production and the film was submitted to Sundance, but before Shelly could be informed of the film's acceptance at the Festival. And that's a tragedy because of the loss of a human life and a talented actress and a bold talent. You'd think it'd be tricky reviewing Waitress -- no one wants to speak ill of the dead -- but the good news is that endorsing and recommending Waitress is easy as, uh, pie. Viewed in the context of no context, Waitress is a light, breezy romantic comedy with a crackerjack cast and a certain degree of faux-Southern charm that never descends to cornpone mawkisness, and also has a whip-smart comedic sensibility in every scene.
Waitress opens with slow-mo shots of food, glorious food -- pudding pouring slow as a lover's caress into a pie crust, apple slices tumbling into cinnamon-sugar with exaggerated glistening glory, scatterings of crumb crust falling like stars. Jenna (Keri Russell) is a pie master, a diva of desserts and a sultan of savories; it's her avocation, and also speaks to her inner moods: thinking about her upcoming challenges, she's planning some new creations -- "I Hate my Husband Pie; I Don't Want Earl's Baby Pie." Earl (Jeremy Sisto) is Jenna's husband - a dim, controlling jerk. Jenna finds solace in pie and the support of her co-workers Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Shelly). She also finds that her new physician advising her on all matters pre-natal, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion) is sweet, cute, kind and handsome -- oh, and married. Which doesn't prevent her from kissing him. Repeatedly.
Often, infidelity is presented as a panacea for romantic troubles in film, but Waitress is so light and charming that we don't mind the cliché; plus, after one or two scenes with Earl, we can absolutely grasp why Jenna would hurl herself -- repeatedly -- into Dr. Pomatter's charming embrace. Russell may have become best-known through her television work, but this lead role lets her shine in an unexpected way -- she actually gets to stretch her acting muscles, as opposed to simply shaking out her mane of curls. Fillion -- best-known for glorified B-material like Firefly and Slither -- also gets to show off an unexpected flair for light, stumbling comedy while playing a romantic lead with a real sense of confusion and sweetness.
At one point in Waitress, Earl goes from being a comically bad husband to being an actively bad husband, and it's jarring; at the same time, Shelly's direction keeps the mix of seriousnes stakes and frivolous comedy smooth. The film also looks wonderful, and the entire cast -- including Eddie Jamieson as an awkward suitor for Dawn's affection and Andy Griffith as the owner and proprietor of the pie shop where Jenna works -- gets the most out of finely-tuned lines of dry wit and big, broad slapstick moments. Waitress was Shelly's sixth film as a director, and its sale to Fox Searchlight isn't just a charitable act towards a fallen artist -- it's a celebration of good-hearted, well-made comedy that will hopefully lead a broader audience to find the work she left behind as her legacy.