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Unjust Desserts

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Writer/director Adrienne Shelly's Waitress is the perfect antidote for the loud, coarse, repetitive summer movie season. Instead of fights, chases, pratfalls and thread-bare plots, Waitress delivers everyday individuals yearning for escape from quietly desperate circumstances. Shelly's picture is lighthearted without lacking substance, serious without being heavy, smart without being pedantic. It exudes warmth for modest human hopes and tolerance for inevitable human failing. Waitress is ultimately sunny, yet it arrives in tragedy. Shortly after the film had been accepted for exhibition at Sundance, Adrienne Shelly, 40, was murdered by a man she had argued with about noise coming from the apartment below hers. Her senseless death provides a painful footnote to her film's stubborn optimism. But the work stands on its own and serves as a fitting tribute for a woman who walked her own way. She should have lived to provide us refuge from the mindless Hollywood cacophony for many summers to come.

Waitress is the story of Jenna (Keri Russell), a waitress in a small-town Southern diner. Jenna's marriage is established as a hasty and disastrously bad decision in a place where options are few. If her husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto) would shave and put on a clean shirt, we could imagine him as devilishly handsome. But he's a slob, and much, much worse. He treats Jenna with an air of unrelenting menace, demanding her tips at the end of every workday and nonetheless taunting her with directives about how they can be happy: "I feed you. I pay for the house. Do what I say, and I won't get mad." Shelly's skill at managing the tension between these two characters is so great that despite Earl's omnipresent threats, we are still shocked when actual physical violence breaks out.

Nobody at the diner has a particularly happy home life. Fellow waitresses Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Shelly herself) have their own problems. Becky is married to an invalid, and Dawn is frustratingly single. Nonetheless, they all acknowledge that Jenna's situation is the worst. And Jenna expresses her woe in an odd but persistently funny way. Her job includes baking the pie special every morning. And every day she invents a new, always delicious concoction with an unusual set of ingredients. Their hilarious names include "I Hate My Husband Pie," and other undisguised comments on the nasty situation of her marriage. Then, Jenna discovers she's pregnant, and her baking begins to concentrate on that unwanted condition with the production of "I Don't Want Earl's Baby Pie," "Bad Baby Pie," and the sensational "The Baby Is Screaming Its Head Off and Ruining My Life Pie."

The deserts are indicative of both the comedic strategy and a life's philosophy. Life doesn't give you what you want. You wish for ingredients of comfort, opportunity and luxury that you can't have. But if you have a sense of humor and are willing to work with what you have as opposed to what you'd wish for, you can still make something satisfying. In the hands of a different and lesser filmmaker, such sentiments would curdle into a predictable transformation of Earl from Simon Legree to Prince Charming. That doesn't happen in the real world, and it doesn't happen here.

Waitress proceeds from a distinct perspective that eschews social norms as well as standard plots. One might suspect that Jenna's unwanted pregnancy would give rise to at least some reflection on abortion. The standard path today is for the woman to assert her procreational right to choose and then, for religious or other reasons, choose to have the child. Here, the issue doesn't even arise. Jenna expresses the most unmaternal of sentiments, but she never contemplates anything other than bearing the child.

The picture is comparably indifferent to conventional political correctness with regard to marriage vows and adultery. Becky blithely decides to have an affair with the diner's manager (Lew Temple), and nothing in the script suggests she'll be sorry. More pointedly, when Jenna finds Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), the town's new gynecologist, to be the kind of gentle, thoughtful, caring man that she's always dreamed about, she only occasionally chides herself for pouncing on him and never really feels sustained guilt for having sex with him anytime she can get him alone. This defiance of accepted moral expectations might cause little notice if it merely rendered Earl a deserved cuckold, but the doctor is married to a beautiful, considerate, loving wife he has no reason to betray. In Shelly's view, life is less about what's right and wrong and what's just and unjust than it is about acceptance that things are hard and imperfect and deciding where to go from there. There's no religious subtext in this film, but I think Shelly would agree with Will Campbell's formulation that "We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway." And in that grace, we are best advised to spread love where we can and get on with making the best possible pie.

In  Waitress , Becky (Cheryl Hines), Jenna (Kerri Russell) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly) make pies and hash out the strange fruit their lives have born. - FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
  • Fox Searchlight Pictures
  • In Waitress , Becky (Cheryl Hines), Jenna (Kerri Russell) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly) make pies and hash out the strange fruit their lives have born.

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