Friday, March 07, 2008

"Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day" -- * * *

A fast-paced, completely enjoyable Cinderella story, Bharat Nalluri's "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" is the kind of old-fashioned charmer we don't get a whole lot of these days. There's admittedly not much to it, but the movie is almost aggressively endearing, cute, and surprisingly touching, even as it escapes from your mind on the way out of the theater. Offering two terrifically vintage star turns from two of the best actresses working today (one a veteran, the other just starting to break out) and sending you out of the theater with a smile, it's a lovely bit of escapist entertainment.

Based on Winifred Watson's obscure (well, I'd never heard of it) 1938 novel of the same name, "Miss Pettigrew" tells the grown-up fairy tale of the titular frumpy governess (Frances McDormand) whose single day interaction with a social-climbing actress/singer Delysia (Amy Adams) impacts both their lives. Opening with a sequence showcasing the unfortunate nature of Pettigrew, who's been relegated to eating in soup kitchens and sleeping on the streets, she nonetheless connives her way into one more highly-sought-after job. Thinking it's another typical nanny position, she finds out the position is "social secretary" to the fairly slutty Delysia. Where the latter is flighty and filled with boundless energy, Pettigrew is always sensible, grounded and fairly helpful.

Delysia has three different boyfriends, you see: Nick (Mark Strong), the one who owns the apartment she lives in, Phil (Tom Payne), the boyish producer of a West End show she wants a lead in, and Michael (Lee Pace), the poor piano player who loves her for who she truly is. Though it takes her nearly all day to figure out what we know from the beginning, Pettigrew immediately assesses the situation correctly. Over the course of the day, while helping Delysia juggle her affairs (figurative and otherwise), Pettigrew is promptly made over to look presentable, gets an extended taste of high society, and finds a little bit of romance for herself with Joe (Ciaran Hinds), a suave lingerie designer.

This is the kind of thing that lives and dies by the actors' charms and talents, or lack thereof, and thankfully, two of the most delightful around have been employed. There is such goodwill present for both of these actresses, that it's difficult not to give the movie the benefit of the doubt right at the outset. Turns out the two actresses play wonderfully off each other, and their obvious contrasts/disparity makes them a delight to watch. They have the sort of natural chemistry that makes their interactions fluid and perfectly matched, and not like they're acting in two separate movies, which often happens with roles/performances like these.

McDormand plays up the comic bits brilliantly, showing off her oft-utilized wit, but she also gives Pettigrew a profound sense of dignity and compassion. A staunch realist, but equipped with intractable initiative, McDormand beautifully plays Pettigrew's potential misgivings, while pulling off her shift in appearance and attitude once she's made over around the 35 minute mark. Whether amusingly taken aback by Delysia's questionable actions ("I'm feeling fraught with moral complexity") or explaining why she's never treated herself to fine things before ("I suppose I've never felt I really deserved it"), McDormand turns Pettigrew into a three-dimensional human being and allows us to share in her sadness, joy, and bountiful determination.
Though this is unquestionably McDormand's show, she is equally matched by Adams, in a role not quite as simple as it appears to be initially. Some have expressed concern that Adams is starting to appear typecast, consistently playing one-note naive, upbeat women, but I think that assessment is a bit premature. While yes, she is infectiously delightful here, as she was in "Enchanted" and "Junebug," all three characters have different shades of definition and she's certainly more fleshed out here than she was in the Disney flick. Adams seems to have taken an intentional cue from Marilyn Monroe's turn in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," and if she had played that the entire film, it might have started to grate. But Delysia is soon revealed as more than just the vacuously chipper social-climber she appears to be; it's explained she has a past she longs to escape, and Adams makes us sympathize with and almost root for her success.

Among the various men in Pettigrew and Delysia's life, Payne deserves credit for baring his ass early on, but Pace and Hinds are both the two standouts as Adams' and McDormand's respective white knights. They're not very fleshed-out characters, but these two actors make them feel more than just "types." Pace will make most audience members unashamedly swoon and wish they had one of him to call their own, while Hinds gets a chance to show why he's been getting cast in virtually every interesting movie to come out lately. In just the last four months alone, he's appeared in "There Will Be Blood," "In Bruges," "Margot at the Wedding," and now he's here, and in the upcoming "Stop-Loss," all while appearing on Broadway for the last four months in "The Seafarer," as the devil himself. In this, his most substantial role of the group, he makes it clear why he's been so prominent as of late; he's the guy you put in your movie as the character you keep wanting to see more of.

"Miss Pettigrew" is unlikely to do blockbuster numbers at the box office, but what I imagine will keep its moderate niche audience flowing in consistently for the next month or two, is its successful execution of an old-fashioned entertainment feel that keeps things upbeat, and is bound to create positive word-of-mouth. I personally have never experienced the thrill of a makeover, or an embedding into high society, but this film allows you to indulge in those hypothetical delights, and all set to the hits of Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer. When not dabbling in its serious moments (more on those coming up), there's an unrelenting jaunty, jazzy feel here-- including the music-- that's a big part of why this movie works. Another reason is the production and costume design, which spectacularly re-create the aesthetics of the time period. Amidst all this fluffiness, the film's title hangs over the proceedings, indicating that this day of high-class delight will end. It does, but the film thankfully leaves open the possibility for happiness.

Likely to be a common opinion upon watching "Pettigrew" is just how theatrical it feels. The opening act is particularly farcical, but throughout, characters enter in and out, seemingly on cue, and we're given plenty of delightfully sentimental declarations, innumerable costume changes and zany coincidences that rarely take place in the real world. The performances ground everything for us, but the movie doesn't really try to hide that this is a not-hugely-realistic real-world fairy tale, and it's best to just go with that. Even including a musical number (there's a romantic duet of "If I Didn't Care" near the end), it's easy to imagine this all as a live production, and I have a feeling that if it came to pass, it would be a fairly sizable stage hit.

Realistic or not, the film's farcical elements do in fact give way to emotional and character-driven depth, as breezy as the fluff around it may be. There's always the threat of poverty for Guinevere, and the WWII-set story elements rear their head every so often. From a newspaper headline about Hitler early on to air raid sirens during an otherwise jovial celebration, these elements seem like a blatant attempt to add "resonance" to the proceedings. They don't really work, especially since the movie seems to have no intention of doing anything with them, but I understand why they're here. The intention is to acknowledge the reality going on while our leads dabble in the make-believe quest for happiness, but it's not really delved into, so it bears little impact on the movie. Either way, it's a minor quibble.

"Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" is kind of forgettable, but that's also kind of the point. This whirlwind of high-brow delight all takes place in a single day, and is gone in an instant, but that doesn't lessen their highs. Lasting only 86 minutes, the movie is worth seeing, if only to witness the immense talents and charms of our two leading ladies, but it has more to offer than just that. Though it occasionally threatens to evaporate in front of your very eyes, "Miss Pettigrew" is an altogether charming experience, and one infused with enough feeling to come off as more than just a trifle.


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