So the standard movie-critics scale of thumbs-down, turkey, 3.5, bullet and happy face almost doesn't apply. It's like an upside-down thumb with a happy face on it, and whether or not you want to see it depends on what you value in a film.
The story is a collection of well-worn romantic comedy clichés: Keri Russell (formerly Felicity, now Infortunatus) plays Jenna, a waitress trapped in an unhappy marriage to a controlling jerk (Jeremy Sisto). But Jenna does not live for love. No! She lives for the making of pies.
Sadly, she is impregnated by her Neanderthalish spouse and must face the prospect of having a horrible alien parasite growing inside her belly.
But! The new gynecologist in town is handsome Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion, who was drawn to Earth from outer space by the lure of gynecology) who takes one look at Jenna's lady bits and falls in love with her.
But! Dr. Pomatter is also married, so he and Jenna can only have the kind of love that is known as "forbidden" that has caused so much trouble for people like Romeo Montague and Anna Karenina and Condoleezza Rice.
Unfortunately, poor Jenna cannot leave her husband, because she has no cash-money with which to escape, since he takes every penny she gets and won't let her out of the house and also lays hands upon her in an unfunny way that is, perhaps, the movie's most insightful element.
Sisto is great as Earl, the husband. There's a kind of controlling freak who is rarely well presented in film, and Sisto plays the part with a horrifying accuracy. It's not that he's terribly physically abusive to Jenna; that would have been too obvious, and in a film filled with obvious choices, it's interesting that Shelly didn't go that way.
Instead, his every look and gesture implies that he lives in violent fear of his wife leaving him. Shelly conveys this with some thoughtful touches: Earl won't let Jenna have her own car, so she's dependent on him to get anywhere. After he behaves abusively, he'll become pitifully emotional. And he summons Jenna by the staccato honking of his horn.
He really gives the movie weight, as the rest of the characters are more broadly comic. This isn't a bad thing, though: Russell shows some real chops with facial expressions, holding a look of paralyzed shock for three scenes after she kisses Dr. Pomatter, and casting a mean, hollow glare upon learning she's pregnant.
She's well supported by Cheryl Hines, who channels Polly Holliday's "Flo" from the old Alice series, and Shelly herself, who plays a mousy waitress who seeks love and a less-pasty complexion.
And frequently, the dialogue between these three is riveting. They affect a weird faux-Southern dialect that sounds like something David Milch would write if his heart was made of candy.
Given all that, Waitress has a lot to recommend it. Unfortunately, it goes super-sappy sweet a little too often, and Shelly dips too deeply into the standard toolbox of plot twists, making everything as predictable as the outcome of a game of tic-tac-toe.
Andy Griffith, who is apparently immortal, plays Old Joe, the cantankerous owner of the diner where Jenna and company work. No one likes him or talks to him, except Jenna, and they develop a special bond. Oh, if only there was some way for wealthy, lonely Old Joe to help impoverished Jenna out of her money-less plight! But such a thing must be impossible, and thus I'm sure nothing will come of their odd friendship except the lasting glow of mutual respect.
Even the subplots proceed with ineluctable certainty toward their standard outcomes. Without giving anything away, one might note that if a man and a woman are arguing, they'll probably be kissing soon, and that comically determined stalkers always get the girl.
Whatever. As disappointed as I was in the story elements, I nonetheless enjoyed Waitress. A lot of credit goes to Shelly's creative eye: The film is shot in clashing colors, and a lot of it is gorgeously framed, creating scenes that look like they came from postcards for roadside tourist traps along the Appalachian Trail.
Russell's weird performance goes a long way toward carrying the film, too. Shelly clearly learned a few tricks from her old director Hal Hartley, notably that naturalism in acting is only one way to go, and that mixing realism and extreme affectation is often more affective than simply going one way or the other.
There's so much goodness in the dialogue, too, that it makes this film doubly tragic. That Shelly could write oddball lines like, "That's my truth summed up for your feminine judgment," or, "You didn't initially have a strong happiness about this baby," and have them flow like molasses from the mouths of her cartoon-gothic characters is a testament to her scripting skill.
The end of the film is moving not only because of the well-tried power of its manipulative story, but because this is it for Shelly, who was murdered last November. I wish she could have stuck around to write a few more weird bits of dialogue.