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Keri Russell radiant in bittersweet ‘Waitress’

Folksy film has its heart in the right place and is a tribute to director Adrienne Shelly. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

Adrienne Shelly would have been tickled by the warm words of praise “Waitress” so deservedly has received.

Shelly, who wrote, directed and costarred in this rich little dramedy, was killed last year in her Manhattan apartment just before its Sundance premiere; knowing her fate makes watching the movie feel even more bittersweet.

Keri Russell provides plenty to smile about, though. She’s absolutely radiant in this rare lead role, and she also gets to show the kind of dramatic depth we haven’t seen in a while from TV’s “Felicity.” In recent years, Russell has ably appeared in small supporting parts (“Mission: Impossible 3,” “The Upside of Anger”) but seeing her always makes you want more. Here, she steps front and center, and it’s a joy to watch.

Russell stars as Jenna, a small-town Southern waitress famous for making the best pies around, with inventive ingredients and names inspired by whatever is going on in her life.

Lately, there’s been a lot.

Jenna is miserably married to her selfish pig of a husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto, whose character is drawn a bit too two-dimensionally), and has been stashing away money with secret plans to leave him. Then she realizes she’s carrying his child — the result of an unusual drunken romp — and rather then feeling any sort of maternal rush, she’s angry and resentful that this thing has taken up residence in her body.

As fellow waitresses toiling alongside her at the diner, Cheryl Hines and Shelly are steadfastly supportive and enthusiastic about the baby, even though Jenna isn’t. One of the best aspects of “Waitress” is its witty, heartening depiction of female friendship and loyalty; these women are totally different, but they’re there for each other.

Jenna also gets advice, whether she wants it or not, from the cantankerous diner owner, Joe. Andy Griffith is a hoot in the role, and gets to say some stunningly un-Andy Griffith-like things.

But, in time, Jenna finds herself turning for help more frequently to the town’s new OB/GYN, the rigid but goodhearted Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). Like something out of a ’40s screwball comedy, it doesn’t take long before their awkward exchanges give way to passionate kisses, which lead to an ill-advised, full-blown affair.

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Fillion, star of the cult-favorite TV series “Firefly” and its movie spin-off, “Serenity,” turns his character’s awkwardness into something unexpectedly charming. He’s serious and seriously funny, and he and Russell share a dynamic that’s irresistible.

Of course Jenna knows what she’s doing is wrong. But she’s also happy for the first time in ... well, probably ever. And she’s also coming up with the most creative concoctions of her life, including:

  • I Hate My Husband Pie
  • Earl Murders Me Because I’m Having an Affair Pie
  • Pregnant Miserable Self Pitying Loser Pie

“Waitress” may play up its folksiness a bit too much, and comparisons to “Alice” are inevitable (with Hines functioning as the sassy Flo figure). No matter — its heart is absolutely in the right place, and it strikes some real emotional truths. It will make you laugh, it might even make you cry, but it definitely will make you hungry.