To look at the late actor-turned-filmmaker Adrienne Shelly, you wouldn't think she was that tough. A diminutive strawberry blonde with a scrunched-up nose and a cockeyed grin she'd exaggerate for comic effect, Shelly was the poster girl for the burgeoning indie film movement of the early '90s: Mousy-looking but stealthily assertive, somehow she seemed the perfect candidate to tongue-kiss Lemonhead Evan Dando on the cover of Spin magazine at the height of both their careers.
Tragically, Shelly was murdered last fall in her apartment in Manhattan the victim of a homicidal building worker with a grudge but she leaves behind one modest, bittersweet reminder of her candy-coated tomboy sensibility. A fairly typical small-town Cinderella story that is, if Cinderella were knocked up and baking pies in a diner Waitress has an appealing nasty streak to it, a cold, hard center that ultimately melts away when the film is exposed to the furnace-like warmth of motherhood. Until that moment, when our proud mama Jenna (Keri Russell) gets a glimpse of her newborn "parasite," as she call it for nine months prior, writer-director-co-star Shelly and her cast are able to add notes of grace and ambiguity to what is essentially a feature-length episode of Alice, or maybe an unusually sweet, "very special" Roseanne.
Cute without being cloying, Waitress stacks the deck against Jenna from the start. She's stuck with a baby she doesn't want and a pathologically co-dependent husband (the always-interesting Jeremy Sisto). Even her dreams of entering a pie-baking contest to show off her handiwork concoctions like "Marshmallow Mermaid Pie" and "Fallin' in Love Pie" are quickly dashed by the dismissive men in her life. A glimmer of hope or at least hot sex appears in the form of the new OB/GYN in town, the slightly shell-shocked Dr. Pommater (Nathan Fillion); although, it must be noted that Shelly was never one to pin a character's salvation on a knight in a shining white lab coat.
Waitress wavers between well-observed moments of trailer-park humanity and sugar-sweet contrivance. But then, any movie in which the director herself (in a small supporting role) calls the heroine "the queen of kindness and goodness" isn't begging to be recognized for its Scorsese-esque realism. Instead, Shelly has made a sort of white-picket-fence fairy tale. As long the script's clichés are woven into the fabric of a pleasantly retro fable about respecting yourself complete with '50s-style neon signs and the almost ghostly presence of Matlock himself, Andy Griffith Waitress goes down easy enough.
Russell's cheerily caustic delivery helps. The former Felicity has had a rough time establishing a leading-woman career, but here she seems in tune with her director: sexy and devious, but still an innate fount of "goodness." For all the moments in Waitress that seem lifted directly from other movies, she and Shelly have found ways to invigorate others. When Jenna finally hatches her parasite, the mix of elation, dread and boredom that hangs in the delivery room is the sort of feeling that can only be accurately conveyed by women who have been there, done that. It's a shame we won't have Shelly around to share more of these kinds of experiences with us.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].