Adrienne Shelly's Last Offering

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Alan Markfield / Night & Day Pictures

Adrienne Shelly in Waitress.

Adrienne Shelly was murdered last November in her New York office. It was one of those stupefyingly banal crimes — the result of an argument with a construction worker — that preoccupy the tabloids and make the rest of us think long, hard and miserably about how thin and how carelessly drawn the line between life and death is. You leave home in the morning thinking about the weather, your dinner plans for the evening, the phone call you really don't want to return — and you don't come home. Ever.

Shelly, who had written and directed two previous movies and appeared in something like 20 films, mostly of the low budget, independent variety, left behind a devoted husband, an infant daughter and a completed film, Waitress. It appears to be a true reflection of her spirit — eccentric, good-naturedly feminist, kind of funny and kind of sentimental. Despite its realistic setting in a small Southern town, it is much more a fable than it is a slice of authentic life.

Speaking of slices, it concerns a waitress named Jenna (well-played by Keri Russell, mixing defensiveness and determination) who has a gift for baking exotically named pies ("Pregnant Miserable Self Pitying Loser" pie is one example), which bring her creative happiness and her customers culinary delirium. The rest of her life is, however, half-baked. She's married to a lout named Earl (Jeremy Sisto) who is a pure feminist nightmare — self-centered, exploitative, whiney and angry — and her waitress colleagues (played by Cheryl Hines and by Shelly herself) are desperately looking for love in all the wrong places. Jenna is trying to save money to make her escape. This plan is complicated by the fact that the awful Earl has impregnated her. And by the fact that she falls in love with her obstetrician (Nathan Fallon), who is half dreamboat, half doofus, and is himself married. This does not stop the pair from making love everywhere they can — including his examination table.

It takes a good deal of wrenching about to bring this story to a happy ending, which involves the intervention of a deus ex machina, in the form of a rich, cantankerous old man (Andy Griffith, and welcome back to him) who takes a shine to Jenna. I'm not at all certain that the matches Shelly arranges for Jenna's fellow waitresses (one of them ends up with a poetry-spouting accountant, the other with the diner's surly cook-manager) are made in heaven, and I'm equally dubious about the soft landing the movie finally arrives at.

But, as I said, we're talking fable here, not life as it is actually lived at the minimum-wage level, and Shelly had a nice gift for intricate plotting and broadly comical characterizations. The sexual eagerness, briefly, occasionally stayed by guilty hesitations between Jenna and her doctor is nicely judged and played with great brio. The same is true of the foot-sore waitresses. Maybe the guys they eventually settle for are far from ideal, but they are what's on offer there in East Overshoe, and the human animal will eventually settle for what warmth it can find as opposed to waiting endlessly for the romantic perfection that exists only in paperback originals.

As for those humorously named pies ("Baby Screaming its Head Off in the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life" is another) you come to accept them as a convention this movie seems to require. Besides, they look delicious, unlikely as some of their ingredients appear to be. They are self-conscious grace notes, little tastes of the transformative possibilities that can be found even in essentially dismal lives. There's something spunky about those pies and there's something spunky about Waitress in general. Shelly wrote her screenplay when she was pregnant for the first time and it obviously reflects both the anxieties and the excitement of her of her pre-natal days. You want to indulge that spirit. And, of course, you want to mourn the fact that this well-directed movie turned out to be her last. In normal circumstances we would probably label it "promising." Now, sadly and cruelly, we are forced to mourn the fact that Adrienne Shelly's high potential will never be fulfilled.