One is always reluctant to speak ill of the dead, but at the same time one shouldn’t praise a work just because it’s posthumous. That’s the problem posed by this third film from the late actress Adrienne Shelly, who had moved on to writing and directing as well, and who was murdered in her New York City apartment last year, though at first her death was thought a suicide (the case was even used as a basis for an episode of “Law and Order,” on which she once guest-starred). “Waitress” certainly boasts a distinctive style and tone, but the style is arch and quaint, and the tone too insistently quirky. Shelly made two films with Hal Hartley, and it shows.
This is one of those pictures that employ food as metaphor (see “Babette’s Feast” or “Like Water for Chocolate”), with Keri Russell playing Jenna, one of three servers at a small-town southern diner called Joe’s Pie Shop, set in that timeless fairy-tale environment such pictures love. (The other waitresses are brash Becky, played by Cheryl Hines, and mousy Becky, played by Shelly herself. If you’ve seen “Alice”—the television series—you’ll know their pedigree.) Jenna’s the only one of the three who can manage to serve the place’s cantankerously lovable owner (Andy Griffith) with some degree of good humor, and she’s also the master maker of scrumptious pies marked by their unusual combinations of ingredients and the names she gives them, always reflective of her own emotional state. The latter is primarily determined by her unhappy marriage to Earl (Jeremy Sisto), a kind of nasty version of the low-brow fellow of the same name played on television by Jason Lee; he bosses his wife about and expects her to be the always-obedient servant of his needs and insecurities, threatening force if she doesn’t comply.
Understandably, Jenna’s trying to save money to leave town, but her attitude changes when she finds herself pregnant, and she’s drawn into an affair with the town’s new sawbones, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), a pleasant if slightly nervous (and married) fellow who reciprocates her interest. She keeps her pregnancy secret from Earl as long as possible and, when she finally enters the delivery room, finds that giving birth to a daughter changes her life (along with a liberating twist that, in truth, will not come as much of a surprise to anybody familiar with such folksy hokum). Meanwhile as counterpoint shy Dawn winds up with a poetic simpleton named Ogie (Eddie Jemison), whom she initially rejected on a misbegotten blind date, while Becky, wed to an elderly husband we never see, takes on a secret lover. Could it be the surly diner manager Cal (Lew Temple)?
One can perhaps understand why female viewers of a certain age might respond positively to “Waitress.” It focuses on issues that women face all the time in their relationships with men, and emphasizes female empowerment (it’s hardly chance that Jenna is liberated by giving birth to a daughter, whom she obviously intends to provide with opportunities she didn’t have). It’s also no surprise that the male characters don’t fare nearly as well—Earl’s an uncaring dolt and the doc a loopy type unable to commit to either of the women in his life. Even the nice guys—Ogie and Joe—are goofy caricatures. And its mixture of the cute and the slightly naughty is calculated to titillate, but only mildly enough to be charming rather than offensive.
Within this admittedly problematic ambience, which will make less receptive viewers feel more queasy than enchanted, the cast certainly give their all, with Russell playing the sweet card and Fillion the lovable doofus one, while Sisto actually manages to bring a measure of sympathy to a character that might have degenerated into the simply insufferable. Hines and Shelly can’t escape a sitcom feel, and neither can Griffith, but older viewers will naturally have such affection for him by prior acquaintance that they’ll enjoy his interventions, however heavy-handed. On the visual side, production designer Ramsey Avery, art director Jason Baldwin and cinematographer Matthew Irving have created an atmosphere awash in candy-colored nostalgia, and the vibrant appearance of Jenna’s pies, lingered over by the lens, adds to the swooning sense Shelly was obviously aiming for.
Like many of those concoctions, “Waitress” is designed to mix ingredients that wouldn’t seem naturally compatible but wind up a surprisingly delicious combination. But the result doesn’t work nearly as well in cinematic terms as Jenna’s pies supposedly do in gastronomic ones.