CINEMA: Frances McDormand Will Have Her Revenge

misspettigrew_1.jpg MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY (2008, directed by Bharat Nalluri, 92 minutes, U.K.)

COVER (2008, directed by Bill Duke, 98 minutes, U.S.)


Trying to resurrect the spirit of Hollywood screwball comedies decades after their era died rarely bears fruit yet a new generation of filmmakers are continually foolhardy enough to try. The screenwriters of Finding Neverland and The Full Monty (David McGee & Simon Beaufoy respectively) have dug up Winifred Watson’s 1938 novel for some authentic source material yet as fizzy entertainment Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day lacks the snap and personality needed to make us fall for her the way we should.

Set in the London of 1939, Frances McDormand cuts a Chaplinesque figure as the title character, a failed governess spiraling towards the soup kitchen when she finagles a job with the up-and-coming actress Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams). Delysia needs all the help she can enlist to juggle her three suitors: a horny young son of a theater producer, her club owning Sugar Daddy and a broke piano player (who as you might guess is her true soulmate). When Miss Pettigrew arrives just in time to remove Delysia’s passionately flung underwear from the chandelier with her umbrella, you know that Miss Pettigrew will set everything right like a cross between Mary Poppins and Ann Landers.

At a brisk ninety-two minutes, Miss Pettigrew can count momentum on its side. Over the course of her day Miss Pettigrew chases Delysia through one handsome set piece after another, a whirlwind of fashion shows, swanky nightclubs and dazzling penthouse suites. Overwhelmed by all this production design is Amy Adams spoofy performance; she’s working all the Marilyn Monroe mannerisms but her character is all ditzy gold digger without Monroe’s unselfconsciously sexy vulnerability. Frances McDormand’s overly-broad performance would be fitting for a Carol Burnett Show skit so when the film shifts gears and goes all weepy over Miss Pettigrew’s lonely life, the emotion feels unearned.

Only the dependable British actress Shirley Henderson gets it right, yanking unwritten nuances out of the wan script as the helium-voiced gossip-monger scheming to land a wealthy fashion designer. She’s the closest thing the movie has to a villain and yet her briefly glanced ambivalence strikes one more deeply then the scatter-brained lead’s easily-calmed romantic turmoil. Ms. Henderson was wise to wrestle whatever effect she could out of her role, the story’s demure demeanor is just too meek to upset the necessary applecarts that this sort of antic romantic comedy needs to take flight

Meekness is not a problem for Cover, the latest of what has been a string of Christian-grounded black cast melodramas that pop up with little fanfare at urban theaters. I guess their piousness inoculates them from being called exploitation films yet they all (films like Woman Thou Art Loosed and Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman) contain the travails of some of the most low-down sinners you’ll see on the big screen these days.

“I’m a Christian, not a murderer!” is the line I’ll be borrowing from heroine Valerie Maas (the excellent Aunjanue Ellis) next time I’m hauled in on a murder charge. Valerie is being sweated for a confession by Louis Gossett Jr. and he loses his patience as she spills her life story to him. Seems Valerie was living the American Dream before she figured out that her man was on the “Down Low” hooking up with other men on the sly. Once a God-fearing woman, she falls hard from grace and spends much of her time bitterly recounting her woes with a bunch of other scorned women in a support group in the church’s basement.

When a woman’s soul is at stake all subtlety is out the window. She guzzles liquor till the church elders descend on her bedroom and wrench the bottle from her fist. She claws her way back to sanity and spies on the world of down low lovers, where straight-acting men catch that furtive glance and take a few steps away from their wife and kids to brazenly offer another man head. By the time we find out who really gunned down R&B singer Ryan Chambers (Cool Running’s Leon) Valerie has dragged herself through America’s hypocritical mud with all the dignity Lana Turner might summon in one of those classic Douglas Sirk films.

And to top it off the whole thing is shot in Philly! Vivica Fox, Roger Guenveur Smith and Patti Labelle are among the cast that tools around Center City and Chestnut Hill to air their sorted laundry all over our town. Even if I couldn’t cozy up to the film’s icky homophobia, Cover offers up localism and seedy thrills in such heaping portions that I know it will be awhile before I feel this entertained again.

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