It's hard to look at Waitress, the final film of actress-turned-writer/director Adrienne Shelly, straight on. It aims, and sometimes strains, to be a brightly colored, life-affirming comedy, the kind in which friendship and determination can overcome adversity and hurtle over any obstacles. But the film's tragic backstory—Shelly was murdered in a random act of violence after Waitress' completion—keeps throwing off the tone. That's not the film's fault, of course, and if Waitress had fewer problems of its own, it might be easier to overlook the specter in the margins. Though contrived and artificial in ways that don't always work, the film is also heartfelt and made with genuine affection for its characters, qualities in too short a supply to dismiss.
Shelly takes a small role as the frazzled third of a trio of waitresses in a roadside pie diner. She's joined by Cheryl Hines, a wisecracking seen-it-all type, and Keri Russell, a young, unhappily married woman with a genius for inventing new pies, and new pie names, usually tailored to suit whatever mood she's in. Take, for example, "Bad Baby Pie," a savory quiche Russell invents when she learns she's unexpectedly pregnant by controlling husband Jeremy Sisto. Later, once she's begun an affair with handsome (and married) obstetrician Nathan Fillion, her creations take a sweeter turn, at least for a time.
Apart from a few scenes, Shelly's film is unapologetically stagy, putting the emphasis on dialogue and characters, and sometimes both let the film down. Sisto in particular seems to be playing a character who's more ape than man, and it would be tempting to compare the setting and ditzy sidekick/tough-talking blonde/soulful lead dynamic unfavorably to Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore if it aspired that high. With its snappy dialogue and broad characters, it's closer in spirit to that film's sitcom spin-off, Alice. Still, there's much to offset the shortcomings, particularly nice performances from Russell and Fillion and a rare, welcome role from Andy Griffith as the diner's gruff owner, even if he's largely there to set up a finale that cheats much of what's come before. It's an imperfect film, but it's the kind of imperfect film of which it would be nice to have seen Shelly make more.