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Stereotypes Sink 'Pumpkin's' Sorority Satire

Movie Review

Greek life, long an easy target, is lampooned with little skill, stranding Christina Ricci in an implausible story.

June 28, 2002|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Pumpkin" means to be an outrageous dark satire on fraternity life, but its ambitions far exceed the abilities of writer Adam Larson Broder and his co-director, Tony R. Abrams, in their feature debut.

The result is hit or miss, with a laugh here and there, ultimately creating an aura of hopeless and drawn-out improbability. The key problem is that Broder and Abrams have failed to surround their key characters with three-dimensional people, reducing them to easy stereotypical targets. What's more, the values embodied by the fraternity and sorority system have been attacked repeatedly in the movies, starting at least as far back as "Take Care of My Little Girl" (1951), and the job has been done far more effectively than here.

A blond Christina Ricci stars as Carolyn McDuffy, heralded by her sorority sisters as the most "enthusiastic" member of Alpha Omega Pi at SCSU (the film was shot at Broder and Larson's alma mater, USC). The AO Pis have become determined to wrest from the Tri Omegas--whose house is directly across the street--the Sorority of the Year title, which the Tri Os have held for 22 years. The AO Pis have gone in for a bit of ethnic diversity--none but tall Nordic-looking women need apply to Tri O--but that still hasn't done the trick.

So the AO Pis pick what they consider a killer charity to support, the Challenged Games, a Special Olympics-type competition for the mentally and physically challenged. This will involve the girls helping coach the athletes.

Carolyn's initial response is that such a choice is going too far, risking the AO Pi image. In the throes of a self-serving political correctness, her sorority sisters swiftly overrule her. When Carolyn is assigned to a pleasant-looking, gangling youth nicknamed "Pumpkin" (Hank Harris), she is soon responding to the "beauty of his soul."

In the old Hollywood tradition, Pumpkin's affliction is vague in the extreme. He may or may not be mentally retarded, and he seems to have a mild case of cerebral palsy that by the time the film is over has been reduced to little more than a limp.

Much to her dismay, Carolyn finds herself falling in love with the sweet-natured Pumpkin, which gives her a drastically changed perspective on her life, friends and values--and which the filmmakers would have us believe spells social catastrophe for her. There may be a valid premise for both comedy and drama here, but despite a game and wide-ranging portrayal by Ricci, it is not developed in consistently credible fashion.

Wealth and class can be highly insulating, but Carolyn seems far too naive for a college senior at the beginning of the 21st century. This has the unfortunate effect of making her seem not much smarter than her sorority sisters, airheads one and all. The elasticity and lack of specificity of Pumpkin's ailment undercut Harris' appealingly wistful performance.

Until he's required to make a drastically over-the-top move at the film's climax, Kent (Sam Ball), Carolyn's boyfriend, is the film's most plausible figure, a brawny, strong-jawed tennis champion who is clearly considerably brighter and more aware than Carolyn. Carolyn's and Pumpkin's mothers, however, really sink the film: Mrs. McDuffy (Lisa Banes) is a shallow Pasadena socialite who is an unapologetic racist and bigot. Pumpkin's mother (Brenda Blethyn) is possessive to a degree that can only be described as monstrous.

MPAA rating: R, for language and a scene of sexuality. Times guidelines: inappropriate for younger audiences.

'Pumpkin'

Christina Ricci...Carolyn McDuffy

Hank Harris...Pumpkin Romanoff

Brenda Blethyn...Judy Romanoff

Sam Ball...Kent Woodlands

A United Artists release of an American Zoetrope production. Directors Adam Larson Broder and Tony R. Abrams. Producers Karen Barber, Christina Ricci, Andrea Sperling, Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa. Executive producers Francis Ford Coppola, Linda Reisman, Willi Baer. Screenplay by Broder. Cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt. Editors Sloane Klevin, Richard Halsey. Music John Ottman. Costumes Edi Giguere. Production designer Richard Sherman. Set decorator Paul Roome. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes.

In general release.

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