Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

By Elise Nakhnikian

Just a couple weeks ago I was writing about Fool’s Gold, complaining that they don’t make romantic comedies like they used to any more. So I’m grateful to the estimable Miss Pettigrew, who showed up last weekend in a lovely blue scarf. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

When we first meet Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand), things aren’t going her way at all. A failed governess, she’s unemployed and slipping quietly into desperate destitution when she grabs at one last chance, reporting to work for Delysia LaFosse (Amy Adams).

Delysia is a small-time singer and aspiring actress with big-time ambitions. Like Miss Pettigrew, she teeters on the brink of a crisis: She can’t decide whether to follow her heart or her head. She needs Miss Pettigrew to help her choose between the three men she’s juggling, each of whom represents a very different career path. Phil, the callow young producer and playboy (the boyishly beautiful Tom Payne), can get Delysia the starring part she wants in a West End play. Nick (Mark Strong, who could be Andy Garcia’s younger brother), the slick operator who owns the nightclub where she sings – not to mention the swanky apartment where she lives –can give her anything but love. And her piano player Michael (the soulful Lee Pace) wants to be her accompanist for life.

Of course, we know whose arms Miss Pettigrew will deliver her into, but it’s fun to watch them get there, as what starts out like a French farce, complete with slamming bedroom doors, turns into a more standard romance.

But in the end, this cheery fable is less about any of Delysia’s men than it is about the mutually empowering friendship developed by the two women over the course of one very full day. Sensible, loyal, and infinitely resourceful, Miss Pettigrew is just the “personal secretary” Delysia needs. For her part, Delysia makes her nearly invisible friend visible, first taking her advice and then getting her out of her drab brown clothes and into some very pretty things, starting with that beautiful scarf.

Over the course of her frenetic day with Delysia, Miss Pettigrew acquires a suitor of her own, a surprisingly romantic Ciarán Hinds. It’s a treat to watch this decidedly middle-aged, unglamorous pair charm each other – and us.

With her somewhat horsey, naturally lined face and doughy arms and ankles, McDormand was born to play aging girls next door like Miss Pettigrew or Fargo’s Marge, women whose beauty reveals itself only as you grow to love them. McDormand’s heroines ooze common sense and empathy. But those comforting maternal facades hide rich, if largely untapped, veins of mischief.

Adams’ frothy flirtatiousness glitters prettily in the solid setting of McDormand’s sanity. Ever since she stole the show as a naïve but loveable young wife in Junebug, the actress has specialized in characters brimming with open-hearted optimism, and Delysia is no exception.

I think Adams would have reminded me of Carole Lombard even if the script had not so often name-checked the earlier actress, since she channels Lombard’s ditzy but good-hearted charm as well as her delicate beauty. But there’s also a lot of Betty Boop in Adams, who’s earthier than Lombard and who lacks the hysterical edge that could make Lombard seem more infantile than madcap.

It’s a tribute to Miss Pettigrew that it makes you think about the comediennes of the 1930s and ‘40s. That’s probably thanks in part to the fact that the book it was based on was published in 1938. Director Bharat Nalluri and screenwriters David Magee (Finding Neverland) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) also deserve credit for maintaining the brisk pace of those fast-talking farces, their sunny faith in human nature, and their satisfying way of giving everyone just what he or she deserves in the end. And costume designer Michael O’Connor and production designer Sarah Greenwood did an excellent job of finding or creating gorgeous pre-war clothes and settings, though the extras in the party scene were somewhat less convincing than the canapes.

The period touches feel a little forced at times – the actors sometimes talk too fast, as if just speeding up the dialogue would make it funnier, and the words themselves can be a bit clayfooted, more earnest and less witty than the best of the screwball scripts. In fact, there are few if any great lines or truly memorable moments in Miss Pettigrew.

But it’s hardly fair to compare this to the best of the screwball comedies, which rank among the very best American movies ever made. Miss Pettigrew may not be great, but it is delightful. In years to come, when I get frustrated by the quality of the romantic comedies in theaters, I can easily imagine turning to this one for another fine evening’s entertainment.

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