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Can’t fight the feeling: Harris and Ricci in Pumpkin.

Just Like Romeo and Juliet
By Shawn Stone

Pumpkin
Directed by Anthony Abrams and Adam Larson Broder

Pumpkin has all the elements of the cruel, gross-out style of comedy that is currently de rigueur. The movie features a plethora of physically perfect sorority girls whose feelings are as deep as their makeup, and a busload of developmentally challenged teenage boys who have as many different physical problems as the girls have different shades of nail polish. One would expect that the latter would be drooling Kool-Aid on the former before the opening credits were over, and, to be sure, the film does not shy away from irresistible cheap laughs. That said, this satire on shallow, upper-class narcissism has something almost shocking at its core: an utterly romantic belief in the transcendent power of love.

Carolyn McDuffy (Christina Ricci) is the blonde shining star of a little-sorority-that-would on the sun-soaked campus of a Southern California university. Alpha Omega Pi may have the right spirit to win the coveted “Sorority of the Year” award, but there’s a rival Greek house packed with young women even more impossibly blonde and frighteningly tall. That sorority has won the award for longer than Carolyn and her friends are capable of remembering. The only way the earnestly cynical AOPi brain trust feels they can win is to snare an attractive, multicultural group of freshmen as pledges, and commit themselves to the most heart-wrenching, difficult charity they can think of. With a cunning more appropriate to the planning of a Republican National Convention, they set their sights on “acceptable” black and Asian candidates. (One sister gushes, “Isn’t that little Filipino girl darling?”) For the charity, they choose physically challenged, male teen athletes to prep for a Special Olympics-style competition.

Thus, Carolyn finds herself coaching Pumpkin Romanoff (Hank Harris). He barely speaks, walks with difficulty, falls down regularly, and stares at her constantly. She is horrified. It is soon evident that more than his disability is inhibiting his communication: Pumpkin has a crushing case of love at first sight. Ricci is wonderful at conveying the terror of the situation, as Carolyn discovers that she’s falling in love, too. Carolyn is also comically naive: Her realization that this “retarded” kid sees more substance in her than does her jock boyfriend—that she might have an inner life someone could be drawn to—registers on Ricci’s stunned face as divine revelation. As Pumpkin, Harris accomplishes the difficult feat of playing a challenged person without irritating mannerisms. He’s so understated and natural, it’s easy to overlook his achievement.

This torrent of young love provokes revulsion from Carolyn’s sorority sisters and the parents of both kids. Her volcanic roommate Jeanine (Dominique Swain, in a superb turn) seethes with disgust. It emerges that vodka-swilling Judy Romanoff (Brenda Blethyn) expects as little from her son as the folks who laugh at him; she loves him deeply, but we realize that the Special Olympics-style competition is, in her eyes, just a hollow exercise in boosting his self-esteem. Ironically, Carolyn’s icy blue-blood parents expect even less from her. They want her to shut up, smile, wear the tiara, and be the queen of the Greek ball. The film does a fine job satirizing the willful stupidity required for successful conformity.

Like any teen romance worth its hormones, the film has wild swings in tone. What holds it together is the carefully modulated comic sensibility (surprising for a film with two directors), an unsentimental commitment to tolerance, and a crazy belief in the importance of love. The film’s enigmatic, bittersweet final lines underscore this beautifully.

My Virtual Fair Lady

Simone
Directed by Andrew Niccol

Hand it to Al Pacino for bookending a generally lackluster summer season in two of its most memorable films: Insomnia and Simone, a very savvy update to both the Pygmalion and Frankenstein myths.

If you were to synthesize the best qualities of Uma Thurman, Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd, Winona Ryder, Denise Richards and your own choice of sexy female movie stars, you would either end up with a Frankenstein-like monster or Simone, Hollywood’s newest sensation. The product of an advanced CGI program that allows its programer to build a synthespian (Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company’s apt name for a synthetic actor), Simone is a virtual actress who has been created by sampling bits as bytes of such luminaries as Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Grace Kelly and Lauren Bacall (although I see more resemblance to the stars of the former list). In any case, the beauty of Simone lies as much in the eye of the beholder as in the mind of the creator; which is to say that she has an unfathomable beauty that allows us to see in her something of what we wish.

The Victor Frankenstein of Andrew Niccol’s nifty film is Viktor Taransky (Pacino), a once-respected director whose recent arthouse films have tanked, causing his studio head and ex-wife, Elaine (an effective Catherine Keener), to fire him. Having also been subjected to the humiliations of a supremely spoiled superstar, Nicola Anders (a terrific Winona Ryder), who has pulled out of his current film before its completion, Taransky understandably yearns for the good old days of independent directors like John Cassavetes and actors who wielded less control than their directors and studio chiefs. It seems nostalgia and an obedient actress are just pixels away when a dying genius, Hank Aleno (Elias Koteas), wills Taransky a gift of a computer simulation program he has invented, Simulation One, which Taransky truncates into Simone.

Replacing all of Ryder’s scenes with the ethereally beautiful Simone, Taransky not only salvages his career but creates a superstar who has no ego. It’s a potent concept that gets much more interesting as Taransky winds up in an extremely complex relationship with Simone. She becomes his alter ego, his champion and the Galatea to his Pygmalion (an element I wish Niccol had explored further). She is also the monster, albeit a beautiful one, to his Frankenstein—although as played here, the results are less horrific than comic. Pacino is inspired in the role, and giving him the chance to react to a situation like the one Dustin Hoffman had in Wag the Dog nets some truly splendid laughter.

As handled by Niccol, the painstaking craftsman behind the worthy Gattaca, the film resonates and makes its points about the illusion and reality (and delusion!) of celebrity without getting didactic. As he did in Gattaca, Niccol creates a stark, antiseptic environment that is a perfect paradigm for the refined, sanitized, warts-free, highly polished artificiality and “perfection” of the digitized computer image.

I understand that Simone, who is billed in the credits as “herself,” is actually model-turned-actress Rachel Roberts. That Niccol pulls off the ruse without our knowing whether (or how much of) Simone is real or computer-generated is continuously tantalizing and one of the philosophical delights of the film. And the effect is not lessened if Simone is played by a flesh-and-blood actress, because she has almost certainly been digitally modified or enhanced.

Niccol’s greatest coup, one that no other film dealing with artificial or virtual personas can boast, is the marvelous casting of that most passionately human, believable and undigitizable actor, Al Pacino. His presence, at once comic, pathos-ridden, frenzied and delirious, stands in constant counterpoint to the artifice.

Niccol cunningly satirizes the notion that it has become virtually impossible to know where CGI begins and ends. And he raises the delectable question of how much it matters, given the manufactured packaging and phoniness of some actors. He has Simone say that she is the death of the real. It was amusing, depressing and slightly frightening to see the opening of the film being protested by morons holding such signs as, “Simone has no soul!” George S. Kaufman was right when he defined satire as what closes on Saturday night.

—Ralph Hammann

Hot Steaming Crud

Serving Sara
Directed by Reginald Hudson

Some movies are so worthless, they’re critic-proof. Serving Sara, directed by the once-promising Reginald Hudson (House Party), is in this category. It’s crud. Period.

But because Matthew Perry is a household name, and because Elizabeth Hurley was a lot of fun in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, perhaps a little description is in order. Perry plays Joe Tyler, a down-and-out process server who isn’t all that good at shoving legal papers in people’s faces. Hurley is Sara Moore, the wife of a billionaire cattle rancher (Bruce Campbell). Ditzy Sara is unaware that her shining knight in a 10-gallon hat is filing for divorce. He wants her to be served with papers in Texas, which has the most conservative divorce laws in the country. In her home state of New York, she’d get half of everything. After Joe springs the papers on her, she makes him a counteroffer of $1 million to put the drop on hubby instead.

The plot is used up in the first 15 minutes; much pointless, witless flailing ensues. Joe is sabotaged by a rival server (Vincent Pastore) with the IQ of a cow pattie. Their boss (Cedric the Entertainer) fumes unfunnily at every bumble by his incompetent employees. (This is a testament to how lame the script is: It defeats even Cedric, one of the Original Kings of Comedy.)

The first half is not only tiresome—it’s nasty, too. Utterly devoid of a single comedic notion, Hudson kills time by exhibiting how stupid the characters are. Hurley (perhaps wisely) doesn’t bother to act; instead, she pouts and pirouettes as though practicing for her cosmetics contract. Perry starts out with a failed attempt to play against type as a cynical lowlife, then slowly sinks into his Chandler Bing shtick from Friends. As if in retaliation, Hudson zeros in on the actor’s bullfroggy neck at every opportunity. The film’s big gross-out scene comes when Joe, somehow mistaken for the ranch veterinarian, shoves the full length of his arm up the rectum of an impotent bull. The sequence is too pathetic to be funny, and too boring to be gross. It’s just . . . crud.

—Ann Morrow


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