Pumpkin
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 28 June 2002

Paid up

Christina Ricci has recently been on a public-confessions kick. Turns out that she not only survived making Mermaids with Cher and Winona Ryder, but also, a traumatic childhood, anorexia, a season of Ally McBeal, along with other, common True Hollywood Stories-style horrors. Her movie choices, by contrast, are refreshingly unusual: Vincent Gallo's creepy Buffalo 66, Tim Burton's eccentric Sleepy Hollow, and Don Roos' brilliant The Opposite of Sex.

Ricci's latest strange choice is Pumpkin, which she has also co-produced. Directed by Anthony Abrams and Adam Larson Broder (who teamed to write the story for 1998's seriously unclever Dead Man on Campus), Pumpkin ostensibly satirizes college-melodrama-comedies, but never quite finds a coherent tone or, for that matter, very interesting targets for jokes.

Ricci plays Carolyn, the only blond in Alpha Omega Pi, her sorority at Southern California State University. Apparently, this difference signals her capacity to think herself free of the herd, which includes head sister in the house Julie (Marisa Coughlan, whose appearance in a film might start counting as the kiss of death, given her previous picks -- Super Troopers, When Freddy Got Fingered, Gossip) and grumpy Jeanine (Dominique Swain). Desperate to beat their rivals, Tri Omega, for Sorority of the Year (or some such ting), AOPi decide to mentor young male athletes prepping for the "Challenged Games."

At first the girls are all ewwwy about the venture, Jeanine going so far as to scream and run off in a panic when she first meets her protege. Though she is also repulsed by her charge, Pumpkin Romanoff (Hank Harris), Carolyn tries her best to seem receptive, barely containing her disgust while teaching him to toss a discus and kick a soccer ball. After a couple of meetings and passing encouragement from her tennis star boyfriend Kent (Sam Ball, who has a jaw that looks like Bruce Campbell's plus a Dudley-Do-Right prosthetic -- amazing), Carolyn starts to think that Pumpkin can see into her soul. She attributes this ability to his having suffered pain, which she, of course, has not.

Carolyn imagines that experiencing pain will make her deep, and to help her out, the rest of the film has her suffering a lot of it. Though Pumpkin's well-intentioned mother (long-suffering Brenda Blethyn) tries half-heartedly to keep her son away from the girls she comes to see as a "whore," it's clear that Carolyn's sense of destiny will prevail. And if her "development" takes her down a few roads she doesn't anticipate, you can see them coming a mile away. What's less easy to predict is how and where the film is headed, emotionally and politically. As Carolyn endures (even actively pursues) one devastation after another -- loss of her boyfriend, her sorority membership, her friends, her self-esteem -- Pumpkin's point becomes increasingly hard to see.

That's not to say that its possible intentions are hard to see. It seems obvious that the film is looking to skewer conventions and genres galore -- romantic comedy, Greek-organization farce, West Side Story -- but the jibes are less than original. While the movie makes fun of all kinds of prejudices (as the sorority girls endeavor to rush "diversity" quota-fillers, or struggle with their fears of the "challenged" boys), it encourages viewers to laugh at the targets of prejudice, much like Farrelly brothers' movies tend to do (remember Ben Stiller chucking Frisbees at his "challenged" partner's head). So, Pumpkin's efforts to stand up from his wheelchair, lift weights, or play soccer are made to look simultaneously "heroic" and offered as moments for viewers' self-conscious laughter. You pay for your pleasure. But you still get your pleasure. Sort of.

The film looks like it wants to be provocative and contrary, but its jibes and so-called "risks" are run of the mill. It includes several "incorrect" images and jokes, but descends more often to broad lobs, at air-headed sorority girls; a self-loving poetry teacher (Harry Lennix); Carolyn's hideously rich, ignorant, and selfish mother Chippy (Lisa Banes); Kent and his one-dimensional studly teammates. The ill-fated, lantern-jawed Kent does catch the brunt of the film's cruelty, as his sense of shame when Carolyn chooses to bed a "retard" over him, leads to an incredibly hysterical highway drive, complete with cliff and screeching brakes, all leading him to become a "better person." (To its credit, the film here includes a moment of musical-score overstatement that rivals a Douglas Sirk melodrama.)

But aside from such brief lunacies and Ricci's straight-faced performance, Pumpkin mostly settles for jokes that you've already seen over-killed elsewhere. The aggressive "bad taste" and gotcha humor, plainly conjured with the intent to appall or surprise, are finally not so transgressive as they are mainstream and common. Carolyn's journey takes her rolling over the feelings of various friends and acquaintances -- not least of all Pumpkin, whom she abuses, ostensibly unintentionally, again and again. The movie appears to be making fun of making fun of "retards," "gimps," frat boys, egomaniacs, et. al. But the "making" part is too strained and the "fun" part is too stale.

Directed by:
Anthony Abrams
Adam Larson Broder

Starring:
Christina Ricci
Hank Harris
Brenda Blethyn
Dominique Swain
Marisa Coughlan
Sam Ball

Written by:
 

Rated:

R - Restricted.
Under 17 not admitted
without parent or
adult guardian.

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