The Bittersweet Hereafter

Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress.


A week after seeing Waitress, I still tear up when I think of its closing theme, a catchy little lullaby about pies that was co-written by the movie’s writer, director, and co-star, actress Adrienne Shelly (Trust, The Unbelievable Truth). Shelly was murdered last November at the age of 40, one of those stupid, horrible New York deaths: After she argued with a worker in her building about construction noise, he beat her and tried to make it look like a hanging (Shelly died from “compression to the neck”). * That is, by any standard, a really awful death, and Waitress is, by any reasonable standard, a fairly mediocre movie. But the two facts, that of Shelly’s death and of the movie’s release, are inextricable from one another; there’s no way to separate them from each other, and no reason to. When you watch Waitress, you’re also watching a meta-movie about Shelly’s brutal end, and the spirit that bursts from every corner of this overcrowded movie is so genuinely warm that trashing it feels like panning a so-so baton-twirling performance at the church talent show.

Go ahead and see Waitress: See it for the luminous Keri Russell as Jenna, a “pie genius” employed as a waitress in a small-town Southern diner that’s so folksy, it’s owned by Andy Griffith. And see it for Jenna’s pies, luscious-looking creations with autobiographical names that can serve here as an outline of the movie’s plot. There’s I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby pie (Earl, the rotten husband who impregnates Jenna one drunken night, is played by the sly Jeremy Sisto), Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser pie (she really, really doesn’t want Earl’s baby), and finally, Earl Murders Me Because I’m Having an Affair pie. For those of you fearing some ironic echo of Shelly’s fate, a reassuring spoiler: No one is murdered in this movie. But jumping into bed with her own OB-GYN (Nathan Fillion) may not be the smartest move of Jenna’s life.

Russell’s performance gets at the roller-coaster ambivalence of pregnancy: She’s stalwart and flaky at the same time. (Although, especially when she speaks of the fetus as an “alien” and a “parasite,” you have to wonder why abortion is never even mentioned as an option. Is it because a movie with a protagonist who dares to consider such a thing would never find an audience?) The problem with Waitress is that no one, regardless of geographic origin or education level, talks the way these characters do. One minute Jenna’s protesting her pregnancy in the drawl of a Li’l Abner character (“I don’t want no baby!”), the next she’s defending her decision to keep it in the patter of a pro-life lawyer (“I respect this child’s right to thrive”).

The Southern-cute dialogue only gets clunkier when spoken by Jenna’s fellow waitresses at the diner, Becky and Dawn (played by Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines and Shelly herself). Only one character, Ogie (Eddie Jemison), a Pee Wee Herman-esque nerd who falls for Dawn after one bad date, seems truly to belong in this nostalgic, cartoonish world. But even if the actors all seem to be arriving from the sets of different movies, they’re appealingly earnest, offering up their awkward lines as generously as Jenna proffers her baked goods. (Honestly, who shows up for a pelvic exam bearing a Marshmallow Mermaid pie?)

The pies, shot in saturated Fiestaware colors, look as if they came with their own stylist and cinematographer (especially given that much of the rest of the film is lit and shot like a nondescript TV show). Waitress should come with its own book of recipes—I, for one, would like to know what goes into Lonely Chicago pie.

A feminist fairy tale about a woman learning to develop her creative gifts while trapped in a stifling marriage, Waitress doesn’t need to be subtle or original to hit home. The moment Jenna finally makes her choice about who, and how, to love is sappy enough to belong in a long-distance commercial. But when you hear that lullaby—the one that goes, “Baby, don’t you cry/ Gonna make a pie”—and see the final shot of Jenna’s little girl (played by Shelly’s then-2-year-old daughter Sophie), you’ll cry over two movies at once: the sweet, hopeful comedy that was Shelly’s last work, and the pointless tragedy that, against her will, was her last starring role.

Correction, May 8, 2007: The article originally and incorrectly stated that Adrienne Shelly died from a beating, when, in fact, she died as a result of the staged hanging. (Return to the corrected sentence.)