A slice of heaven

'Waitress' rolls out a sweet mix of characters led by a sublime Keri Russell

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The title character of Adrienne Shelly's modest, wonderful Waitress is the unhappily married Jenna (Keri Russell), a working woman with a baby on the way and a genius for making pies. The movie is an inspired comedy-drama about artistic temperament. We usually reserve that phrase for writers, painters or visionary thinkers. But Jenna sees the structure of her baked goods whole, the way Einstein would envision his theories or Picasso his paintings. And Shelly sees Jenna as a small-town Southern gal who uses her sensibility to transcend her circumstances.

She lacks the wherewithal or the animal strength and willpower to get out of town, but she stays true to herself - even when she doesn't place a high enough value on herself. And Russell's performance has more than charm: It has aesthetic character. When Jenna declares, "I don't need no baby. I don't want no trouble. I just want to make pies," Russell helps turn it into a statement of principle and creativity. She fills out the filmmaker's conception of a woman who can make surliness seductive. She welds tenderness and fierceness with quiet heat.

Cheryl Hines is terrific as a saltier waitress named Becky, and Shelly herself is winsome as the socially inept server Dawn; like Russell, they create characters with inner pockets of looniness and longing. But Russell is magical as the kind of woman who plants an arrow in a fellow's gut because of her self-contained bearing, her sad eyes and everything she doesn't say.

No wonder Russell caused a sensation on TV when she cut her hair for the second season of Felicity. She's so responsive to the camera that any flush or shadow becomes intimately expressive. When Jenna finally lets herself go with her married yet somehow noble obstetrician, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), she smiles so radiantly and unselfconsciously she's like an indoor sun.

The good doctor can't tell what hit him. He's the perfect man for Jenna's fling (and, some might argue, her life): He's self-conscious yet unaware of how he registers on Jenna. One of the funniest jokes in recent movies is the way his proper counsel for her to call him "with any questions or concerns" takes on sexual colorations. With the smallest fidget or facial adjustment, Fillion suggests how a man can feel excited by a woman and more calm with her than he has ever been in his life. In his own still, halting way, he comes on like comic-romantic gangbusters.

Shelly's tight, evocative writing grasps how easily financial limitations can test a person's dreams. It extends the slang connection between money and baked goods; it sees cash and bread as the stuff of life. Jenna needs one kind of dough even though she's up to her elbows in the other kind.

Happily, because of Shelly's script and direction and Russell's performance, Jenna is neither a victim nor an object lesson in the perils of passivity. She occasionally submits to the unwanted attentions of her abusive and controlling husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto). Yet she retains her dignity not just because she's creative, but also because she's innately, ruthlessly honest with herself even when she's dissembling to Earl and to everyone else.

The only reason she's pregnant is that Earl got her drunk. She refuses to grow soft and sappy about the new life in her body. She stashes away cash for a potentially lucrative pie bake-off that she hopes will win her independence. She funnels her chagrin and fears into concoctions like "Baby Screaming Its Head Off in the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie." Then she gives birth. She realizes that pie-making was the one lasting gift her own mother handed down to her. Artistry and motherhood merge - dreamily and lusciously.

Food has rarely been photographed as lovingly as it is here, or written about as lyrically. Shelly and her cinematographer, Matthew Irving, lavish visual tenderness on berries, custard and crust. The owner of Joe's Pie Diner, the persnickety Joe himself (Andy Griffith), tries to tell Jenna how much she's worth. So he describes one of her creations as "A thing o' beauty," with flavors that open themselves up "one by one, like a chapter in a book," hitting him with an exotic spice before flooding him "with chocolate, dark and bittersweet like an old love affair." Griffith is just plain grand as Joe, who's too smart and too old to care about anything but the truth. As a geezer who knows his own worth, Griffith knows his own exact weight as an actor.

Shelly, too, judges everything near-perfectly. She creates a solid yet delicate balance. On the one hand, there are veracious figures such as Lew Temple's unashamedly harsh grill-man/manager Cal. On the other, there are creatures of fun and fantasy like Eddie Jemison's Ogie, who makes a living doing tax audits but makes a life out of hilarious "spontaneous poetry" devoted to his true love, Dawn.

"Spontaneous poetry" is what animates Waitress, too.

It's awful to think that Shelly was killed in her New York office shortly after locking the final cut of this movie. The film, though, is about creating your own legacy, from the inside out. That's what Shelly did. Waitress, her third and last feature (after Sudden Manhattan and I'll Take You There), fills the big screen with what Henry James once called "felt life."

>>>Waitress (Fox Searchlight) Starring Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Cheryl Hines, Adrienne Shelly, Eddie Jemison, Lew Temple, Jeremy Sisto, Andy Griffith. Directed by Adrienne Shelly. Rated PG-13. Time 104 minutes.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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