- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

Keri Russell hasn’t had much chance to shine on the big screen. Nobody was about to out-dazzle Tom Cruise in last year’s “Mission: Impossible 3,” and the rest of her film resume remains thin.

“Waitress” changes everything.

She holds the film’s gooey center in place, her natural beauty never interfering with her character’s hardened roots. When this indie movie goes south, and it does so in a way mainstream rom-com’s too often do, she’s the last person deserving of blame.

Miss Russell plays Jenna, a pretty, put-upon waitress and pastry chef who escapes her dreadful husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto) by bonding with her fellow pie slingers.

But what pies they are. Grown men grovel like children for a bite.

Earl doesn’t care much about Jenna’s pies, or Jenna, for that matter. He’s too busy beating his chest and burying her self-esteem.

Jenna’s life couldn’t get much worse. Even fellow waitresses Dawn (writer-director Adrienne Shelly) and Becky (Cheryl Hines), whose lives are far from heavenly, pity her.

Then Jenna finds out she’s pregnant.

She finds a romantic escape with Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), who sees her through the pregnancy as well as providing some after-hours counseling.

He’s kind and giving, and their courtship is all awkward silences and rushed embraces. But he’s just as married as Jenna is, and their relationship appears another disaster in waiting.

Still, we’re moved by the coupling, if only to see Miss Russell’s smile beam straight and true.

For a good hour, “Waitress” is as tasty as any of Jenna’s pies. But it’s much more than a sugary delight. Miss Shelly’s command of her film, her third feature as writer-director, is absolute. Miss Shelly’s cast all walk the same line between realism and fantasy, and even the curmudgeon with a heart of gold (Andy Griffith) becomes yet another lip-smacking treat.

Perhaps Miss Shelly fell for Jenna as hard as we do, for the final half hour finds the story crumbling around the edges.

Miss Shelly’s screenplay may buckle toward the end, but it’s uniformly comic and authentic. Sure, some characters appear a bit too stock, like Eddie Jemison as a suitor who won’t take Dawn’s “no” as her final answer. But Miss Shelly’s film casts such a spell it’s darn near impossible to resist — and audiences might gain weight just looking at the marvelous pastries on display.

“Waitress” is a warm and mostly satisfying confection, but the story behind the story is the stuff of nightmares. Miss Shelly, an indie actress known for her work with director Hal Hartley, was murdered late last year following a dispute over noise with a contractor in her New York City apartment.

She leaves behind an imperfect valentine, one deserving of attention on its own merits, not out of any morbid curiosity.

***

TITLE: “Waitress”

RATING: R (Sexual content, adult language and thematic elements)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Adrienne Shelly. Original music by Andrew Hollander.

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.foxsearch light.com/waitress/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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