Thursday, March 13, 2008

'Miss Pettigrew' is an old fashioned screwball gem

“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” a light and frothy throwback to the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s is a wholly enjoyable experience that shouldn't be ignored as just a bit of trifle.

Set in London on the eve of World War II, the film stars Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew, a middle-aged governess who has been unfairly fired from her last position. When the employment agency refuses to help her, she swipes the address of Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), an American actress and singer looking for a new social director. Suddenly, Miss Pettigrew is taken up in the whirlwind lifestyle of the young starlet.

The film starts out frantic and madcap with Pettigrew helping Delysia juggle the three men she is currently involved with: Nick (Mark Strong, “Stardust”) a club owner, Phil (Tom Payne) the son of a theater producer and Michael (Lee Pace, “Pushing Daisies”) a piano player. The film eventually settles into a more leisured, but no less enjoyable, pace.

It is no surprise who Delysia will wind up with, but what is surprising is how affecting this love square is. Sometimes predictable is OK when the story is told and acted so well. In this case, even with the outcome known there’s still a sense of tension. Credit for this goes to the strong cast and a sharp script by Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty”) and David Magee (“Finding Neverland.”)

McDormand, who is still probably best known for her Academy Award winning performance in “Fargo,” is one of the most underused and best actresses in her generation. She is a versatile comic actor who grounds her performances in a certain degree of reality. She thrives in quirky, oddball or offbeat characters, but plays them with a sincerity that keeps them recognizably human.

All of this holds true in “Miss Pettigrew” with McDormand getting laughs from nothing more than facial expressions. There’s a great running gag in which Pettigrew always just misses getting to eat. But McDormand’s performance also hints at an underlining sadness. She has regrets and she wants to prevent Delysia from having the same sense of a life lost.

McDormand shines in her own romantic subplot involving a lingerie designer named Joe (Ciaran Hinds). This older pairing acts as juxtaposition to the youthful abandon of Delysia and her love interests. Joe and Pettigrew remember World War I and quietly dread the prospect of a new one. McDormand’s scenes with Hinds add a weight that you don’t necessarily expect in a piece this fluffy. It doesn’t kill the light tone of the film, but just adds a bit of depth to a film that could otherwise be called superficial.

Adams, who was so effervescent in last year’s “Enchanted” is equally bubbly here, so much so you almost expect her to float right off the screen. And yet, like McDormand, she adds an underlining pain to her performance.

In many respects, this is a film about the fronts we put on to survive life. Delysia smiles her way through life because she can’t afford not to. Adams plays this beautifully. She is a performer with such an open face that when she smiles it is hard not to feel her joy and when she frowns it is hard not to feel her sorrow. This holds especially true during a heart-wrenching duet with Pace on “If I Didn’t Care.”

Given the two female leads, many will probably be quick to dismiss this as just a chick flick, but it would be a shame to cut the audience of such a charming film in half. This is an old fashion, feel-good heart warmer that some would claim they don’t make anymore. Well, they do — and here it is. Savor it.

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