Thursday, March 13, 2008

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: Absolutely delightful

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008) • View trailer for Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for plenty of innuendo and fleeing nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.13.08
Buy DVD: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

One impeccably timed performance in a comedy is a treasure.

Two are a revelation.

After being dragged along to a high-society fashion show, the still shabbily
dressed Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand, left) -- painfully aware of
how much she doesn't fit these surroundings -- wonders how much longer she
can pull off her charade as "social secretary" to irrepressible American singer
Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams).

Watching Frances McDormand and Amy Adams spar in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is akin to sitting courtside during a fast-paced tennis match between champions: Both actresses work their considerable talents to the max, as if each scene were a competition.

But there are no losers here, and we viewers are the winners: This cleverly retro farce is delightful from start to finish, and you'll not be able to take your eyes off McDormand or Adams. Indeed, when both share the screen — which happens quite frequently — it's difficult to know who to watch. Both spice their performances with carefully composed body English and hilarious little bits of business: a tilt of the head here, a calculated pause and raised eyebrow there.

To borrow from a Cole Porter song that'd be right at home in this environment, the result is de-lovely.

Although feeling very much like a transplanted stage comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day actually is based on a 1938 novel by Winifred Watson, a British author whose sexually charged book — no doubt a revelation for forward-thinking women of her day — must've raised more than a few eyebrows. The novel is practically a blueprint for a pre-WWII Hollywood screwball comedy, and I'm amazed it hasn't been adapted until now.

Director Bharat Nalluri — a veteran of recent, top-notch British TV shows such as Spooks, Hustle and Life on Mars — embraces the material as though born to the genre. Working from a finely tuned script by David Magee (Finding Neverland) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), Nalluri guides his talented cast through a fast-paced adult fairy tale that balances its witty dialogue and hilarious plot complications with the real menace of England's impending war with Germany.

Composer Paul Englishby delivers a rollicking, jazz-hued soundtrack that perfectly evokes the era; the result — very much in the mold of Anne Dudley's main theme to the beloved British TV series, Jeeves and Wooster — saucily punctuates this naughty mix of ethical dilemmas and bedroom hijinks.

The story takes place in 1939 London, on the eve of what savvy citizens know is the ramp-up to another nightmare. Times are hard, emotions are high, and jobs are hard to come by; the stuffy gatekeeper at an employment agency therefore is disinclined to help when middle-age governess Guinevere Pettigrew (McDormand) is sacked from yet another placement.

Miss Pettigrew is cursed on two fronts: As a vicar's daughter — as she continually reminds everyone within earshot — she has a tendency toward imperiously prim and proper behavior ... but, on the other hand, she also can't resist tweaking those with elevated opinions of themselves. It's a bad combination, and few highbrow society types are willing to tolerate her.

But with no money and nothing beyond the clothes on her back, Miss Pettigrew is desperate; she therefore snatches a card from the gatekeeper's desk and, moments later, finds herself "accepting" a position far outside her comfort zone, as a "social secretary" to ditzy American singer and would-be actress Delysia Lafosse (Adams).

Delysia, the original girl who can't say no, naturally assumes that Miss Pettigrew has been sent by the agency; their subsequent relationship is built on this impression. And since Delysia exists in a rarefied world of carefree behavior and impulses that exist only to be indulged, she immediately sweeps her fussy new best friend into this heady environment.

The result is 24 hours of madcap hilarity: only one day because, like Cinderella, Miss Pettigrew knows that her daring impersonation can't possibly last very long.

The joke, of course, is that only a self-absorbed dingbat like Delysia could fail to notice Miss Pettigrew's shabby clothes, which clearly brand her as some sort of impostor. But having made the impetuous decision to wholly trust this newcomer — who, in truth, does convey an air of wisdom and good breeding — Delysia refuses to be distracted by anything as inconsequential as blinding truth.

Besides, Delysia already has plenty on her mind. She's juggling three boyfriends: callow theater impresario Phil (Tom Payne), intimidating nightclub owner Nick (Mark Strong) and devoted pianist Michael (Lee Pace, well recognized from TV's Pushing Daisies). The first two are a means to an end; the third genuinely loves her, but is unable to keep her in the penthouse style to which she has become accustomed.

And she's casually sleeping with all three, and wholly unapologetic about it. In calmer moments, she'd insist that a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do, but the truth of the matter is that she just can't help herself. Delysia is an irrepressibly earthy creature, and Adams has enormous fun with the role, as she slides, slithers and shimmies about in various stages of undress.

Think back to Marilyn Monroe at her finest — say, in Some Like It Hot — but then add in the serious acting chops forever denied that 1950s sexpot. The result is Adams, and her work here sparkles with equal parts free-spirited sensuality and doe-eyed innocence.

But lest you think her performance entirely frivolous, Nalluri obtains unexpectedly serious and powerful moments, none better than when Delysia, who works as a singer at Nick's nightclub, launches into a love ballad suggested by the despairing Michael, forever forced to watch his beloved's promiscuous behavior while seated behind his keyboard. Nalluri holds on Adams' face, and cuts occasionally to Pace, as the two deliver a song with a subtext as powerful and magical as the most romantic pas de deux ever staged.

It'll take your breath away.

McDormand, meanwhile, skirts the edges of Adams' performance with a much quieter character who nonetheless holds our attention throughout. One of the film's many running gags involves Miss Pettigrew's increasingly desperate efforts to eat something — anything — under circumstances that become increasingly more torturous. The pained expression on McDormand's face, as the promise of each new impromptu snack is snatched away, is to die for.

And not only because McDormand, in her own calmer way, is just as funny as Adams. The brilliance of McDormand's work comes from the degree to which we immediately identify with Miss Pettigrew, and want her charade to succeed. This respectable woman is fully aware that she has done something bad, and more than once McDormand's features cloud with resignation, as she reluctantly tries to escape from this environment where she clearly doesn't belong.

Fortunately, something always snatches her back.

The characters in classic Hollywood screwball comedies — think Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, in Bringing Up Baby — usually were greatly exaggerated misfits: undeniably funny to watch, but lacking any familiar human qualities that would make us care for them as actual people. McDormand and Adams, in stark contrast, are hilarious and heartbreaking, each perfectly suited to the woman being played.

The secret, which we eventually learn, is that — deep down — Delysia and Guinevere have more in common than one might suspect.

Dramatic tension is supplied by a haughty fashion maven (Shirley Henderson, as Edythe Dubarry) who knows Miss Pettigrew's true origins. The rapacious Dubarry threatens to spill the beans unless Miss Pettigrew works her silver-tongued charm on the gallant women's undergarment designer (Ciarán Hinds, as Joe) who, although recently engaged to Edythe, has grown tired of her faithlessness.

Enjoying her clandestine life and having grown protective of Delysia, Miss Pettigrew has no choice but to comply ... despite her growing conviction that the good-hearted Joe deserves much better than the likes of Edythe.

Throughout the bed-hopping shenanigans, free-flowing cocktails and witty banter, the looming thunder of war drums beats like an accelerating pulse.

"I can't do this again," Miss Pettigrew somberly confesses, during a rare moment of absolute candor.

She's old enough to remember the first "war to end all wars," and she shudders at the inevitability of what is to come. It's one of a few well-timed grave moments in an otherwise lighthearted little romp, and Nalluri wields such emotional punctuations quite skillfully. They remind us that life, always fleeting, can be cut even shorter ... and that true love, therefore, must be the only force allowed to unite two people.

"Playing" at love, Miss Pettigrew insists, is an unforgivable crime against one's own heart.

Pretty heady stuff, for a screwball comedy. But then "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" has more on its mind than blithe spirits, along with two phenomenal actresses able to navigate all emotional extremes.

Jolly good show, as our British cousins would say.

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