Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:18 pm 
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Impossible to type but still hard to forget

Pumpkin is about sorority girls and retarded boys, and what happens when one of the girls -- the Alpha Female, so to speak, Carolyn McDuffy, played by Christina Ricci, falls in love with the boy she is assigned to help, because he adores her and he is so simple and sincere. Pumpkin is partly a satire of self-satisfied upperclass American girls, and it is being compared to "Heathers," which begins as a satire of such girls in a posh high school. However Heathers is a much wittier movie than Pumpkin--and it turns dark and apocalyptic at the end, which is a successful combination. Pumpkin's parts aren't as compatible. Half the time the movie is mocking sorority girls, and half the time it's celebrating the relationship between Carolyn and the challenged, but sweet, boy, Pumpkin (Hank Harris, a gifted physical actor with an expressive face who deserves at least as much credit as Ricci for whatever memorable qualities this oddly skewed movie achieves). Both Pumpkin and Nicole Holofcener's Lovely and Amazing, which is about a group of women in a family and a little girl, and which came out around the same time as Pumpkin, belong to a class of new movies that could be called "Todd Solondz Lite."

These milder Solondz clones are edgy, bitter, satirical, disturbing - but a lot less so than Happiness or Storytelling. They come on at times as light romantic comedy, but then it becomes obvious that something is terribly wrong. In a way they only make sense by comparison with an extremist like Solondz. They switch around among genres and moods, ranging from the cynical to the passionately sincere. Sometimes they're fun, and sometimes they're distinctly not fun. All this works better in Pumpkin, because of its unifying plot, which is half offbeat love story and half coming of age story, than it does in the directionless Lovely and Amazing. Casting gives the movie edge because it's already a kick to see Adams Family girl Ricci playing a perfect blonde sorority sister. Lovely and Amazing has no emotional core. Mostly it just seems disjointed and a bit depressing. It could be called Three Women and a Girl in Search of a Plot. Pumpkin has a very definite plot, an elaborate one, full of disasters narrowly evaded or somehow capitalized upon, a bit like something John Waters might cook up. (Brenda Blethyn performs admirably in both movies, by the way.)

And more than funny or witty, Pumpkin is moving. It's touching in a raw way how the retarded boy blossoms physically and emotionally because of his love of Carolyn, and her learning to appreciate this love makes Carolyn become a real person and shuck off her sorority girl persona. The movie is emotionally powerful despite all the mockery--it actually made me cry at the end--but it also seems confused. Sometimes being challenged is treated very tastefully, but there are also times when the retarded boys seem cartoonish, as does Carolyn's perfect tennis star boyfriend, Kent Woodlands (Samuel Ball), who goes back and forth between heroic good guy and comic cardboard stereotype. It seems obvious that with their contemporary sensibilities the filmmakers couldn't have allowed themselves the sincerity without the strong dose of cynicism and satire to frame it, but in old fashioned terms their emotions are all over the map at once.

Pumpkin isn't as amateurish-seeming and unnerving as Miguel Arteta's Chuck and Buck, but I thought of that picture too. You desperately want to hate Chuck and Buck, or at least I do, but you have to admit it has an original, disturbing premise -- the dense and utterly homely gay guy who tracks down and hounds the successful straight guy he played around with sexually when they were kids. Alone, these movies just leave you puzzled, but together Pumpkin and Lovely and Amazing and Chuck and Buck all begin to make some kind of sense. They represent a new generation of filmmakers who don't really believe in irony any more because it's been so often thrust upon them and cheapened by Madison Avenue that it's lost all its attraction. But their minds are still full of irony - it's just out of kilter now. It's more like embarrassment, with a strong dose of alienation. These are the feelings they live with and seek to evoke. (A more unifed example and a fuller artistic success would be Ghost World.)

This results in movies that are hard to pin down as to genre. A mixture of genres is fine--when it works. It doesn't quite work in most of these new movies. Is there any such thing as a pure comedy? Not nowadays, it seems. That wouldn't be cool. Anthony Abrams and Adam Larson Broder, who wrote and directed Pumpkin, are young guys who instinctively bend genres. For some of us, it's hard to see how you can reconcile some of the elements in Pumpkin, but you have to admit it moves into new territory. Solondz would have shown Pumpkin and Carolyn making love; Adams and Broder choose not to. That's what makes them Solondz Lite.

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