2007, Movie, PG-13, 107 mins


It's tempting to over praise actress-turned-filmmaker Adrienne Shelly's third feature: It's a marked step forward from her second, I'LL TAKE YOU THERE (1999), which was in turn more accomplished than her debut, SUDDEN MANHATTAN (1997). Shelly was murdered before she could continue developing as a writer and director, and while this, her last film, is extremely uneven and undermined by an excess of quirk, Keri Russell's performance as a pregnant pie-guru is a charmer with a bracing streak convincingly desperate determination.

Waitress Jenna (Keri Russell) works at a Joe's Pie Diner, an off-beat, small-town shrine to the baker's craft. Sweet and savory, open-faced and lattice-topped, filled with lemon chiffon or spaghetti, Jenna can make it, and she can make it work. Trained at her late mother's knee, she can transform the most unlikely ingredients into confections as unpredictable and complex as the inner turmoil that inspires them. She's a sweetheart, ready to give mousey fellow waitress Dawn (Shelly) a make-over or serve cranky Old Joe (Andy Griffith) when sassy Becky (Cheryl Hines, channeling Polly "kiss my grits" Holliday from TV's Alice) just can't deal with his complaints. But she's not a doormat: there's a bittersweet finish to Jenna's perky pleasantries. You can even see how she wound up with controlling, pathologically jealous Earl (Jeremy Sisto): She married young and gave him the benefit of the doubt, a mistake she first repented then took steps to correct. Jenna is secretly saving up money for her escape and scheming to enter upcoming pie bake-off with a hefty cash prize. And then she comes up pregnant. After baking an "I Don't Want Earl's Baby Pie," Jenna reluctantly decides to go through with the pregnancy — after all, it's no one's fault but her own that she got drunk and slept with her loutish spouse — and drowns her ever-expanding sorrows in a torrid affair with the new OB/GYN in town (Nathan Fillian).

There no way around it: Russell's performance is spunky and just about irresistible, no matter how much you hate spunk. It's hard to imagine WAITRESS working without her: Hines and Shelly are in there slinging one-note performances — cute, but 100% depth free — and Russell is quietly making Jenna into a richly textured character: When she looks at her belly and mutters, "dumb baby!" or whips up a Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie, the laugh comes with a bitter side of rue. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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