The recipe for one of the pastries figuring prominently in the scrumptious romantic comedy “Waitress” -- I Hate My Husband Pie -- is also a dead-on description of the film itself. “You take bittersweet chocolate and don’t sweeten it. You make it into a pudding and drown it in caramel,” intones Jenna, the put-upon title character who channels her frustrations into baking heavenly creations inspired by her emotions.
The third and final feature by the late filmmaker Adrienne Shelly begins with a comically sour scenario and then slowly rises to become a beautiful, edgy fable featuring flawed people taking big, savory (sometimes misguided) bites out of life. Set in the folksy diner of a small, presumably Southern, town, it is a transformative tale of steely resolve and how an apparent dead-end can turn out to be the expressway to the rest of your life.
Shelly created an irresistible hero in Jenna, a young woman trapped in a passionless marriage to the reptilian Earl (Jeremy Sisto). Jenna, played by a terrific Keri Russell -- displaying a delightfully unexpected flair for the screwball -- has a burning determination to escape bad ol’ Earl by any means necessary, short of killing him. Sisto adds a baseline of sinister menace that enriches the quirky, off-balance nature of Shelly’s storytelling.
That Earl is a mean-spirited dolt who drops Jenna off and picks her up from the diner nearly every day, counts her tip money and demands daily declarations of love, does not dissuade Jenna from dreaming big. The obstacles to liberation, however, begin to multiply, not the least of which coming in the form of an unwanted pregnancy.
The reluctant mom is an unusual and risky path, but Shelly pulled it off with her smart writing, fanciful direction and an inspired collaboration with the spirited Russell. Pregnancy is almost always portrayed in movies with fatuous greeting card sincerity but Shelly boldly channeled some of the natural fears and misgivings into a mother lode of comic possibility.
Jenna’s only real respite from Earl comes at Joe’s Pie Diner, where she and her fellow waitresses, the worldly Becky (Cheryl Hines) and the nerdy Dawn (Shelly), swap stories and advise one another under the watchful glare of manager-short order cook Cal (Lew Temple) and rascally owner Joe (a scene-stealing Andy Griffith), for whom the restaurant is only one of many enterprises.
In rare quiet moments, Jenna imagines a new recipe -- Kick in the Pants Pie or I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie -- dreamily reciting the ingredients in voice-over as we watch the creation take shape, the results stirring those who taste them to revelry.
The mess Jenna finds herself in gets more complicated when she meets the town’s new OB-GYN, Dr. Pomatter. Young, handsome and nervous, Dr. Pomatter makes Jenna uneasy (she refuses to call him Jim) but an inappropriate, ill-timed mutual attraction develops.
In Nathan Fillion -- the star of Joss Whedon’s underappreciated TV space western, “Firefly,” and its big-screen incarnation, “Serenity” -- Shelly has a perfect Dr. Pomatter, an actor whose easygoing charm makes the character’s faults seem more endearing than weaselly.
Shelly juggled a multitude of tones, balancing the tart with the zany, the whimsical and the dangerous. As an actress she became an indie darling in Hal Hartley’s “The Unbelievable Truth” and “Trust,” and as a writer-director she shared with him a taste for the wacky moment and a fondness for deadpan delivery, though “Waitress” has more mainstream appeal than any of Hartley’s films.
It’s a movie for dreamers and those of us who have made wrong turns in life (and who hasn’t?). Shelly’s tragic death -- she was killed last year before hearing that the film had been accepted to Sundance -- only magnifies “Waitress’ ” carpe diem themes.
Like Jonathan Larson, the creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical, “Rent,” the 40-year-old Shelly produced a breakout work and did not live to see its success. Written when she was eight months pregnant, Shelly called the film “a love letter” to her daughter, Sophie, and if you connect the film’s last image and the end credits, it will leave you with a devastating sense of loss that goes far beyond filmmaking.
“Waitress.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content, language and thematic elements. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. At the ArcLight, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-4226; and Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741.
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‘Waitress’ gifts on Mother’s Day
As a special Mother’s Day promotion, Fox Searchlight Pictures will hand out gift bags to everyone who attends a showing of its romantic comedy “Waitress” at one of 100 movie theaters nationwide May 13.
The bags will include beauty products, a magazine, a frozen pie and other goods from participating sponsors, the company said.
Southern California theaters that are participating in the special promotion include the NuWilshire in Santa Monica, the ArcLight in Hollywood, AMC Century City 15 in Century City, the Playhouse in Pasadena, the Galleria Stadium 16 in Sherman Oaks and Hillcrest Cinema in San Diego.