Satire is a tricky genre to pull off on film. While characters and
targets may start off exaggerated, they should gradually come into
focus and grow three dimensions by the end. Painting a satire too
broadly is a setup for disaster; while the material should get laughs
out of its brutal, unblinking, underlying truths, it first needs to
have something of importance to say. "Pumpkin," directed by Anthony
Abrams and Adam Larson Broder, is a particularly biting and un-PC
satire of campus life, the mentally challenged, forbidden love, and
college sororities. The fresh, no-holds-barred screenplay (by Adam
Larson Broder) stands as a stepping stone for some deeply focused
performances and a surprisingly large laugh quotient. Indeed, "Pumpkin"
is one of the funniest motion pictures of the year, but it is also
one of the most curiously depressing. Even while we laugh heartily
at the inspired gags offered up, we are turned off by the meanspiritedness
left in its wake.
A senior at Southern California State University, Carolyn McDuffy
(Christina Ricci) is as vacuously cheerful and artificial as any of
her fellow sisters at the Alpha Omega Pi sorority house. In a desperate
bid to finally win the university's "Sorority of the Year" award,
leader Julie (Marisa Coughlan) signs everyone up to instruct and prepare
a group of physically and mentally challenged people for the upcoming
"Challenge Games." When Carolyn first meets the oddly-named, "retarded"
Pumpkin (Hank Harris), she is distraught by not knowing how to communicate
with him. Pumpkin is so smitten, however, that he begins strength-training
on his own (going as far as learning how to walk for long periods
of time without his wheelchair) in order to impress her. As they spend
more time together, Carolyn is frightened by her own burgeoning feelings
for Pumpkin, whom she believes understands her in a way no one else
does. The harsh consequences of Carolyn starting a relationship with
Pumpk! in finally leads her to a life-changing epiphany about just
how unfair and cruel the world can really be.
"Pumpkin" mixes pitch-black comedy with a congenial, star-crossed
love story, and the results are decidedly mixed. The former is nearly
always on target. First-time directors Anthony Abrams and Adam Larson
Broder will go to any length for a laugh, and they succeed far more
often than not. While much of the humor (some of it directed at the
physically disabled) is painted with outlandish broad strokes, there
is also many subtle touches that tickle the funny bone just as much.
One's likeliness of going along with the off-kilter tone will, no
doubt, depend on how easily they are offended.
Meanwhile, the romance that forms between Carolyn and Pumpkin is meant
to be effective and touching, but it isn't. While Carolyn constantly
prattles on about how Pumpkin sees her in a light that nobody else
ever has, nothing that shows up onscreen convinces us of this. At
just under two hours, the love story is given too much screen time
and not enough substance. With the three or four false endings on
display, the film could have easily been cut down to a tighter, more
efficient 90 minutes.
More cogent is what comes out of the connection between the two characters.
In particular, the way in which Pumpkin changes Carolyn into a better,
less superficial human being is done with a solid hand. Carolyn's
fed-up responses to her narrow-minded sorority sisters and her contradictory,
back-peddling poetry professor (Harry J. Lennix) are priceless. So
is her well-meaning, but disastrous failure to set up Pumpkin with
an intelligent, overweight classmate (Melissa McCarthy), which leads
to a trip to the beach that has to be seen to be believed. While never
losing sight of its outrageous eccentricity, at the heart of the film
is the lovely journey Carolyn takes to self-discovery.
Christina Ricci (1999's "Sleepy Hollow"), who also gets a producer
credit, has been given her most indelible role, to date, and her perceptively
accurate performance as Carolyn is right up there with her turn in
1998's "The Opposite of Sex." Ricci clearly understands the kind of
movie she is making. She takes the part dead-seriously, but never
forgets that she, and her character, are rooted in a very dark comedy.
As Pumpkin, Hank Harris is so unaffected that it is almost inconceivable
to discover he has no real-life mental or physical afflictions.
Surrounding Ricci and Harris is a supporting cast who also capture
the satiric tone just right. Brenda Blethyn (2002's "Lovely & Amazing")
is Pumpkin's protective mother, who accuses Carolyn of pedophilia
when she catches her in bed with the teenaged Pumpkin; Dominique Swain
(2002's "Happy Campers") is Carolyn's roommate, Jeanine, whose initial
reaction to meeting the challenged person she has been paired with
is hilarious in its sheer wackiness; Marisa Coughlan (2002's "Super
Troopers") is snooty, decidedly deranged sorority leader Julie; and
Sam Ball is Carolyn's hunky, tennis-playing boyfriend, Kent.
As good as the actors are, "Pumpkin" remains ambitious, yet unfocused.
For a satire, the messages sent out aren't terribly incisive or provocative,
and the movie's nasty undercurrent leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Then again, maybe that's the point. Just as Carolyn is appalled by
those around her's prejudices and cruelty, so are we. As a showcase
for Christina Ricci's talent and some excellent comedic writing, "Pumpkin"
is a worthwhile way to spend a few hours. But be forewarned: what
surrounds them is the embodiment of human ugliness and despair.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman