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Eulogy for a Waitress: Adrienne Shelly’s Final Film

Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic

Image As I always do before writing a review, I went to the priceless to double-check the names of the cast and crew of Waitress. As I scrolled through the info I was shocked to find out that the writer/director of the film, Adrienne Shelly (who also stars in the film) was brutally murdered last November in New York City.  When I started reviewing films back in 1990, Hal Hartley was an up and coming director, and Adrienne Shelly was the star of his deadpan comedies. I remember that she was a curious looking actress, certainly not “leading lady” material, but there was something more going on beneath the surface, an intelligence that most actresses lack. She was able to make Hartley’s unique brand of humor work because she knew how to let us in on the joke while pulling it off at the same time. It had been a while since I’d seen her until this latest effort, and I’m saddened to know that it would turn out to be her last.

Waitress takes place in anywhere USA, or actually small town anywhere in the south USA. Keri Russell plays Jenna, a piemaker extraordinaire and waitress at a local eatery named “Joe’s Pie Diner”. The entire town seems to eat at Joe’s and Jenna prides herself on the variety of pies that she bakes. Interspersed throughout the film we see Jenna making a pie for different occasions, such as her “Earl kills me for cheating on him pie”, I believe it contains lots of nuts and molasses but I could be confusing it with her “Fall head over heels in love pie”. Earl (Jeremy Sisto) is her insecure, needy husband, the kind of guy who thinks it’s OK to give his wife a little push or slap when she’s been bad. When Jenna finds out that she’s pregnant she is less than overjoyed because now it’s going to be harder to run away from Earl and enter that pie-making contest. Further complicating things is the little fling she has started with Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion).

Getting back to that little pie diner that she works at, the owner is Old Joe (Andy Griffith) and he’s a stickler for the little things, such as his orange juice which must be served without ice. He also has an uncanny ability to pick up on exactly what is happening in Jenna’s life, her wants and her needs. It would certainly seem as though Jenna doesn’t want the baby yet she believes it has the right to exist (the religious right will cheer) yet she is enjoying her affair with her doctor who gives her everything her husband doesn’t (the religious right will boo). Both choices however seem to fit her character. These two situations also perfectly capture the mood of Waitress, a film with plenty of southern charm yet also firmly planted in reality.

Jenna will have to make several important decisions before the end of the film and how she reaches those decisions feels right. It’s obvious that this is a character close to Adrienne Shelly’s heart, and that Jenna’s situations may have even been Shelly’s at one point or another. Waitress is what many will call a “small” film in that it doesn’t really do anything in a spectacular way, but I’m happy about that. It allows its characters to grow on us, whether it is Jenna’s reluctant mother to be, Shelly’s awkward Dawn, who longs for a boyfriend, or Becky (Cheryl Hines) who needs a diversion from her invalid husband. The one thing that connects them all is the Diner where they work and Old Joe who tells them which pie he wants that day. Which brings us to Andy Griffith who comes across as warm and as witty as he did over forty years ago, in fact his advanced age has made him more charming then ever.

Adrienne Shelly has made a film that goes down a lot like a slice of Jenna’s homemade pies, mostly empty calories but still warm and inviting. I wish Shelly’s eventual ending would have been as satisfying as Jenna’s and I’m sad that it wasn’t. I’m sure she would have been proud to know that Waitress plays very much like comfort food for the soul.