Pie porn for the dessert lover’s soul

Main Cast: Keri Russell, Jeremy Sisto

Director: Adrienne Shelley

If I could have just one culinary skill, it would be the making of the perfect pie. Not just from recipes, but right from my own imagination. I would, in my occasional cooking fantasy, be a pie genius. In the absolutely delicious indie comedy Waitress Jenna (Keri Russell) has that to which I aspire – the pie genius gene. Too bad that’s the one and only thing about her entire life there is to be envied.

Waitress is set primarily in the restaurant of my dreams – a pie diner. Jenna is the mastermind behind most of the homemade pies that keep customers coming back in her small town. Jenna also has an infantile and dangerous husband who she would like nothing more than to escape. Unfortunately, as the film opens, she discovers that she’s pregnant. Lesson number one for Jenna: never sleep with her husband. The rest of the film chronicles this pregnancy, as Jenna deals with her friends, her rat of a husband, her new doctor, and an absolute lack of anything even remotely resembling attachment to this baby who has all but trapped her in an existence from which she is desperate to escape.

Wow, that sounds horridly depressing – spousal abuse, unwanted pregnancy, desperate lives. And those things are depressing, and serious – just not here. Writer/director Adrienne Shelley has served up a slice of life that’s deadpan, oddball hilarious, populated with actors who nail their roles and provide depth, humor, and soul to this most fabulous film. At the very heart of Waitress is a fable about hope, despair, and redemption. No typical fable, this, as it sets itself among not the traditionally wise or honorable, but among regular, wacky (okay, slightly more wacky than regular) humans – the people who are far more likely to have real wisdom to share in this world than those who speak from on high. The dialogue is sharp, dry, poignant, and witty, all the way from Jenna’s internal monologue to the advice she receives for a cranky old customer, turning what could be maudlin into a light, funny exercise in mining the humor from any situation.

Populating this film are some of the brightest acting lights anyone could ask for. With her history of teen angst TV, Keri Russell seems an unlikely choice to carry a film, but she is spot on perfect as the frustrated, desperate, kind but flawed Jenna. Every woman who has ever been pregnant can relate on some level to those moments of despair when it seems like everything is suddenly out of control – Jenna voices those moments and more. She doesn’t always make the right choices, in an absolutist sense, but she does the best she can with what she has on her plate. And what she has on her plate is pretty rancid, thanks to her husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto). Earl sucks in almost every imaginable way. Sisto plays this pathetic man to the hilt, never once letting go of the weasel that is the Essential Earl. We don’t like him – Sisto doesn’t care. I love that in an actor.

The supporting cast is just as sad and witty and hysterically dysfunctional as the rest of the film. A picture perfect Cheryl Hines is Becky, a vibrant woman married to a man (who we never meet – thankfully) who apparently has more medical problems than most major hospital wards. She is the mouth of the waitress group – firing back at their surly boss and telling it straight up to everyone around her. She isn’t cruel, but she is very direct. She is also hilarious, nearly stealing every scene in which she appears. Adrienne Shelley herself appears as Dawn, the meekest of our three waitresses. She desperately wants to find a man, someone to ease her loneliness. Maybe she’s not the sharpest crayon in the box, or maybe looks are deceiving. Shelley takes on the physicality of this character, with her thick glasses, slumping posture, and downtrodden speech – she becomes this woman – you’d never know this is the mastermind behind the entire film. Nathan Fillion and Andy Griffith fill out the unlikely cast – each playing his role with glee and a kind of sweet earnestness that’s simply charming.

The photography in Waitress goes a long way toward establishing both the fairy tale atmosphere and my raging pie cravings. The camera lingers lovingly on Jenna as she stirs chocolate, cuts crust, and fills pies. It’s a sensual delight, watching someone prepare food with such quiet, still, and serene passion. Shelley also lets Jenna use pies to describe her moods – and herself. We get to see her put together these imaginary creations (not all of which are particularly appealing) in fast motion cut away that adds yet another layer of funny absurdity to the film.

In the end, Waitress is a fairy tale without the typical fairy tale trappings. Gone is the usual ugly duckling to beautiful swan, gone is the weak becoming the strong, gone are the machinations behind the scenes that plot to foil our heroine. In their place are a single small town and its quirky denizens, all of whom are delightfully, excessively human. They’re caricatures, to be sure, but so sweet and trapped and desperate that we love them despite, no – because – of their lack of gritty reality.

This is the last film we will see from Adrienne Shelley, as she passed away not long after it was filmed. The loss of this talented filmmaker makes Waitress a bittersweet concoction – so filled with promise from a talent whose life was cut cruelly short. I may never be a pie genius, but I know one when I see one – Jenna is the real deal, formed from whole cloth by a woman who knew how to tell a fairy tale in the best possible way.

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