Adrienne Shelly's final film, Waitress (imdb) is getting plenty of rave reviews. Most of these reviews suggest it's cute and light, and seize the opportunity to use baking/food metaphors, describing it as " a little slice of heaven" and "warm, flaky fun ."
One of the primary reasons for its critical success is the spot-on performance of Keri Russell as Jenna, who's reluctantly pregnant and reluctantly married to dolt Earl (Jeremy Sisto), but happily baking pies at Joe's Pie Diner, set in a small Southern town, waiting tables alongside geeky Dawn (Shelly) and the somewhat neurotic Becky (Cheryl Hines). Russell exhibits equal skill with both comic and dramatic material, and it's obvious that Shelly's camera and sympathies are aligned with Jenna from the start.
The film's strengths also include some smart dialogue and deadpan timing, obviously the influence of the years that Shelly worked with Hal Hartley. (This is most evident with many of the exchanges between Jenna and her OB-GYN/man-on-the-side Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion) who in some spots seems to have studied the work of another Hartley collaborator, Martin Donovan.) Waitress does employ plenty of indie quirk, including Jenna's permagrin smile of bliss at one point and the arrival of Ogie (Eddie Jemison) as a Pee-Wee lookalike love interest for Dawn. But unlike some recent films that simply drown in this "quirk" (including Little Miss Sunshine, Thumbsucker, and although I haven't seen it yet, here's the same argument for Year of the Dog), Waitress doesn't need to rely on it because the film actually has a well-developed character to follow.
Pies are the central metaphor here and work as a barometer of what Jenna is feeling at any given time. It's a fun framing device, and it makes you wish they served some in the theater. Some pies are made with love and joy, while others are the fruits of anger and frustration (I Don't Want Earl's Baby Pie). However, Waitress sometimes stops the narrative in its tracks to interject Jenna visualizing these pies--and this sometimes introduces a jarring change in tone. While it achieves the intended comedic effect (you know she's in trouble when she suggests a pie with oatmeal and fruitcake carelessly mashed together), it also reminds us that the balance between romantic comedy and serious drama is sometimes tenuous, and that the film isn't exactly sure what it wants to be.
This contrast in tone occurs in other places. Scenes in the diner (in a nod to women everywhere, Shelly makes sure many important conversations occur in the diner's bathroom) were dramatic, often upbeat, showcasing the camaraderie among the women, and establishing them as fully defined. In contrast, scenes in Jenna's house are dark and depressing, as she's trapped in a marriage to a man that makes her promise to love him more than she'll love her baby, but usually acts like a baby himself. It's during the film's second act that Jenna contemplates the immorality of having an affair, and at this point we wonder how she will ever get out of this mess. Often, I wondered why the high-spirited Jenna didn't take more steps to remedy her situation.
Despite some of these missteps I enjoyed Waitress and hope that it finds a wide audience on its own merits, and not because of the sensationalized publicity garnered by Shelly's tragic death. I'm sure that's what Shelly would have wanted, too.