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The late Adrienne Shelly's final film is one of the tastier treats in some time—yet not too tart. There's even a temptation to wake that crusty, old film proverb "a chick flick that guys can enjoy" from hibernation.


For waitress Jenna (Keri Russell), life is pie—but that's strictly in culinary terms, not metaphorical. In fact, life is anything but easy or exciting for her: She spends every day working for a boss (Lew Temple) she hates before going home to a husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto), she hates even more. The lone highlight of Jenna's day—besides seeing her only two friends, Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly), at work—comes when assembling, naming and baking her town-renowned daily pie; today it's the self-explanatory "I Don't Want Earl's Baby" pie. To her, having a baby would put on hold her dreams of winning an upcoming $25,000 pie contest, which would enable her to leave Earl. Alas, she finds out she is pregnant with Earl's baby, but something good comes out her trip to the OB/GYN—her new, young doc from Connecticut, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). He's different and his attitude is alien to this Southern town, but he makes Jenna feel like she matters and it's not long before she reciprocates. As her due date nears and their secretive affair progresses, her confusion only grows, but she finds clarity from the most unexpected source.


Russell is a long way from Felicity, the TV show that launched her career, but sometimes escaping the pigeonhole of a character as popular as Felicity Porter takes more than mere time. It often takes a left-of-center role like this one, and if Russell's sole intention was to leave her past in the dust, she succeeds—and then some. As Jenna, she arouses everything from sadness to joy to tears of both, leaving out the forced drama that made her a teen favorite years ago. And yet she maintains an undeniable air of, well, cuteness that enables her to play younger than she is in reality. Equally refreshing, perpetual up-and-comer Fillion (Serenity) does a great job of making his relationship with Russell seem an unlikely one. He also displays great comedic skills, which we last saw in '05's Slither. Frankly, there's no good reason he's not a leading man. Curb Your Enthusiasm's Hines, about the last actress you'd pick to play a Southern waitress, gives her best movie performance to date, even if only by proving doubters like myself wrong. Indie vets Shelly (Factotum) and Sisto (Six Feet Under) are also impressive in their comedic and somewhat villainous roles, respectively. And Andy Griffith even stops by for some memorable lines!


Beneath this syrupy sweet tale of pleasantness lies a pitch-black back story: Waitress writer/director/costar Adrienne Shelly was murdered in New York City towards the end of completing her movie. The shame of that, in movie terms, lies not only in the fact that she will obviously never see what is her best and most accessible directing effort, but also that she clearly possessed massive talent and we'll never know where she might've taken it. With Waitress, Shelly created a warm, fuzzy and vaguely nostalgic Southern dramedy, with much less emphasis on the drama. And while her characters might not be completely honest representations of the South, Shelly at least steers clear of offensive stereotypes that seem to saturate today's movies, opting to make Jenna's plight the true conflict instead of choosing the proverbial "Southern climate." Elsewhere, Shelly does virtually no wrong. Waitress is exclusively about the female point of view, which is quite refreshing. Shelly's long takes of quirky dialogue between female characters—think G-rated Tarantino—are nothing short of hilarious, and although the proceedings tend to take a conventional turn, you're always caught by surprise. As the tearjerker, female-empowerment ending unfolds, you can't help but wipe the smile from your face and wish Shelly were still around; film could sure use a positive shot in the arm like her right about now.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.