Pie-making is a tricky business, as are most other things in life. In “Waitress,” pie-maker (or rather, pie-genuis as she’s known to her friends) and waitress Jenna’s habitual reply to “How are you doing today?” is a rolling of the eyes and a quiet, heartfelt, “Same old shipwreck.”

Jenna (Keri Russell) is attractive, a superb cook and scintillatingly smart, but her personal life is an ongoing nightmare due to her infantile, abusive husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto), who routinely snatches her weekly wages right out of her hand.

The women around her also find life hard to navigate; fellow waitress Becky (Cheryl Hines) is stuck with a much-older, bed-ridden husband, and Dawn (director Adrienne Shelly, starring in her own movie) is desperately single, so much that she has invented the Five-Minute Blind Date — “I go home after five minutes and then I wouldn’t have wasted the whole evening!” Old Joe (Andy Griffiths), the man who owns their place of employment, Joe’s Pie Diner, is your standard demanding and cantankerous fool who shows up every day to fuss over the menu and launch into mind-boggling monologues of endless complaining, adding further misery on the girls’ lives. Men!

Director Adrienne Shelly
Run Time 138 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Nov. 17, 2007

“Waitress” is a little stinger of a chick flick by actress Shelly. She has long been an iconic figure in American independent cinema, favored by such directors as Hal Hartley and Tim McCann. Since the mid-1990s she has been lurking behind the camera as well, with a total of six films to her credit. “Waitress” is her latest, and tragically, her last venture into filmmaking. Shortly after completing the film Shelley was murdered in her apartment in New York, by a construction worker who had taken offense when Shelly protested about the noise in her building.

But “Waitress” is a gem, with or without a eulogy — it’s just gross poetic injustice for Shelly to have died from a random act of male violence.

As a comedienne, Shelly’s timing was pitch perfect and, as a writer-director she had an extraordinary ear for wry, funny and intelligent dialogue, no doubt picked up from a career built outside of the Hollywood system. Audiences can savor both in “Waitress,” as well as Shelly’s pure spunk and spirit, reflected in the way the women characters all poke fun at themselves and serve it up as entertainment.

That, basically, is what Shelly’s protagonist and alter ego Jenna does all day, besides run around taking orders and baking pies. Jenna’s pies are extraordinary works of edible art — and humanity — which she gives secret names like “I Hate My Husband Pie” (use bittersweet chocolate on the bottom, don’t add sugar and drown everything in caramel) and “Kick in the Pants Pie” (custard pie charged with cinnamon and spices). Jenna’s dream is to win first prize at a national pie contest so she can take the award money and leave Earl forever. The discovery of that she is pregnant (the despair of which is immediately translated into “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie”) and a meeting with hunky obstetrician Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion) throws a megawrench into her well-laid plans.

OK, She will have the baby since, being a woman of the Deep South, abortion is not part of her psyche. But she still plans to escape. In the meantime, she instigates a torrid affair with the Doctor (“I Can’t Have No Affair Because it’s Wrong and I Don’t Want Earl to Kill Me Pie” — bananas in a swamp of vanilla custard . . . on second thought, hold the bananas!) because, well, who could blame her. Earl not only refuses to support her during the pregnancy, he makes her promise that she won’t love the baby more than she loves him. Between working and home life, and a steadily growing belly, Jenna needs some kind of respite. And the stressed-out Dr. Pomatter who’s married to a doctor wife, admits that he feels much happier when he’s with Jenna. Temporarily healed and feeling loved, Jenna bakes him a “Naughty Pumpkin Pie” for Halloween.

Having an affair, however, is not the answer to her problems. Or rather, Shelly’s message is that men are never the answer. They can help you weather the bumps for a while, maybe, but it’s a mistake to expect or demand anything more, not even from the sweet Dr. Pomatter, who comes off as the catch in a million. Jenna is too smart not to realize this, and the way she decides to take full control over her life and emotions is like watching perfectly choreographed moments of brilliant decision-making. Keri Russell’s performance not only cracks with energy, she delivers her words in a way that causes about a million scales to drop from each eye.

To be fair, though, Shelly’s filmmaking is often too feminist-friendly for comfort — the women have the market cornered on all the great stuff, such as indomitable spirit, wise benevolence and sexy cuteness, while the men behave like oversize babies, piping an unending chorus of “I want-I want-I want,” until it’s time for the women to dump them like trash and turn away, clicking their heels or more likely, just going off to make another pie — the “Women Don’t Really Need Men to Have Fun, Pie.” Poor guys.

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