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May 29, 2007

Film Review - Waitress

    How about a pie called “A Funny and Smart Movie About Poor Women That Unfortunately Condescends to Them Pie”?     “Waitress” follows Jenna (Keri Russell), a waitress and “pie genius” from a rural Southern town who discovers she’s pregnant. It’s not good news; her husband (Jeremy Sisto) has all the charm of a boa constrictor and is twice as tough to leave. She probably didn’t have the money or guts to leave him before, much less with a baby.     Ignored and abused, Jenna pours her soul into ever more complex and evocatively named pies: “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie,” “Bad Baby Quiche” and “I Hate My Husband Pie” to name a few. Seeing a dead-end, joyless future for herself, she starts messing around with her married Yankee-transplant obstetrician (Nathan Fillion acting like an American Hugh Grant). Jenna doesn’t know if the affair is her last chance at happiness or just a distraction before she resumes her miserable life.     All of this might sound a bit bleak, but writer/director/actor Adrienne Shelly (who died before the movie was completed) left us an extremely likeable comedy — Baxter Avenue Theatres was regularly selling out on its opening weekend, and the crowd I saw it with sometimes howled with laughter. The characters are quirky, torn between crassness and genteel Southern charm. Her friends might be cold comfort for poor Jenna — Dawn (Shelly) is mousy and jealous, Becky (Cheryl Hines from “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) is cheating on her invalid husband, and their boss (Andy Griffith) is insufferably crotchety — but for the crowd, their banter is frequently delightful.     Most of the jokes are meant to mock the surreal crappiness of Jenna’s life: a job full of bickering coworkers, an ignorant and sexually incompetent husband and a cute, fumbling lover who is nonetheless married. Of course, all of these jokes also are meant to open our eyes to the political and social realities of most women; poverty affects women differently, and they have to be economically independent before they can be romantically independent and physically safe. “Waitress” is not a preachy movie. It is more like an extremely funny and shrewd soap opera. (That so many men and women might see and love and agree with this movie and still think they’re not feminists is bewildering.)    Still, as much as I enjoyed the plot and politics of “Waitress,” I had some nagging doubts about it. Sometimes the schmaltz is laid on a bit thick. And after a while, I became tired of the jokes about eccentric and tacky Southern women and their inferior husbands: bad grammar, bad taste, intractable ignorance. Even as it seeks to deepen our understanding of women, the film also enforces some pretty unfortunate rural and class stereotypes.