MOVIE REVIEW- Not half baked: 'Waitress' a bittersweet tart of a film

A feelgood movie about spousal abuse and adultery, Waitress is the lighter side of last year's Come Early Morning, another story of a small town Southern woman trying to get her life on track.

Jenna (Keri Russell) is an incredible piemaker. You can't imagine Joe's Pie Diner without her fanciful recipes, sometimes named for her feelings of the moment: "I Hate My Husband Pie."

His name is Earl (Jeremy Sisto), and he's "the most mean, controlling husband in the world," even if, as co-workers Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (writer-director Adrienne Shelly) point out, he's "this handsome guy who's got very good hair."

Most of Earl's abuse is psychological, a product of the "good ol' boy" mentality he was raised with. He takes Jenna's money as soon as she earns it and provides her with everything he thinks she needs, as he was taught a man is supposed to do. He might almost be sympathetic if he didn't strike Jenna, which he does only once in the film.

Fighting back with the only weapon she has, Jenna gives Earl as little sex as she can get away with. Unfortunately, he got her drunk a few weeks ago and she's carrying his baby now. She won't let this interfere with her escape plan, which involves winning $25,000 in the Jonesville Bakeoff and taking off from there.

Even before Earl stops her from going to the bakeoff, Jenna's life becomes complicated. Just when she needs a gynecologist, the old one semi-retires and a new one, Dr. Jim Pomatter (Nathan Fillion) moves down from Connecticut. He's what passes for a dreamboat in the movies, and he and Jenna are immediately attracted to each other, but aside from the doctor-patient relationship, they're both married.

While Jenna deals with knowing love and happiness for the first time, the people around her are having their own romances. Dawn is being pursued by Ogie (Eddie Jemison), a tax auditor, amateur poet and "sexual dynamo"; and Becky is having "a little adventure after many years of lots of nothin'," which obviously doesn't involve her husband, "droolin' Phil the invalid." Then there's the diner's owner, Old Joe (Andy Griffith), a soft-hearted curmudgeon no one but Jenna gets along with.

In the vein of The Good Girl, Waitress presents Jenna as "the queen of kindness and goodness." Audiences will love Keri Russell in the role, even if her mild drawl is inconsistent and her manner a bit too actressy at times. Hines and Shelly are more natural, although you'll wait in vain for Hines to say "Kiss my grits!"

Griffith is obviously being positioned as this year's Alan Arkin, hoping to have a lifetime of good work honored with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for a typically fine but unexceptional performance.

The sad news, of course, is that Shelly, finally hitting her stride as a filmmaker, was murdered last fall while completing the film.

If Waitress were one of Jenna's pies it would be called "Bitter Sweet Tart."