(director: Adam Larson Broder and Tony R. Abrams; screenwriter: Adam Larson Broder; cinematographer: Tim Suhrstedt; editors: Sloane Klevin & Richard Halsey; music: John Ottman; cast: Christina Ricci (Carolyn McDuffy), Hank Harris (Pumpkin Romanoff), Brenda Blethyn (Judy Romanoff), Dominique Swain (Jeanine Kryszinsky), Marisa Coughlan (Julie Thurber), Sam Ball (Kent Woodlands), Harry Lennix (Robert Meary), Nina Foch (Betsy Collander), Caroline Aaron (Claudia), Michelle Krusiec (Anne Chung), Melissa McCarthy (Cici Pinkus), Julia Vera (Ramona), Julio Oscar Mechoso (Dr. Cruz, School Psychologist), Lisa Banes (Mrs. McDuffy); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Karen Barber/Albert Berger/Christina Ricci/Andrea Sperling/ Ron Yerxa; United Artists; 2002)
“All the filmmakers are asking of us, is to believe in something that is improbable.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This quirky societal satire that descends into an overwrought melodrama, manifests itself in a cynical but smug reaction to America’s PC culture. It attacks the wealthy suburban milieu for its stifling conformity and concern with status, a likely source for comedy which has served as sacrificial lambs for scores of such Hollywood films. But this one is refreshingly different from other such same theme films until it runs into unmanageable problems of how to smoothly finish off its impossible love story, and thereby fails to complete its mission successfully. It relies on the understanding of a sympathetic audience to give this farce lots of room to stretch an improbable romance into one that can be possible — the romance between a vibrant and beautiful college co-ed beauty and a disabled young man who appears retarded because he has become inarticulate because of his unnamed illness.

Pumpkin’s co-directors, Adam Larson Broder and Tony R. Abrams, advertise this as “A comedy for the romantically challenged.” So be it! American success stories have already featured various figures from minority and outcast groups overcoming their obstacles to fulfill their American Dream, so why not have a spastic male who is challenged by his illness scoring with the ideal dream woman and taking her away from her hunk, college campus heartthrob, tennis star boyfriend, Kent Woodlands (Sam Ball). All the filmmakers are asking of us, is to believe in something that is improbable. When you watch a Superman flick, you can probably suspend your disbelief and enjoy the film for what it is. But the filmmakers are asking more than that here, they are actually asking us to swallow this story whole and at the same time to reflect on why the so-called normals have such a negative attitude for those who are so different.

The film is set in suburban Pasadena where a child of the privileged, Carolyn McDuffy (Christina Ricci), is the bouncy and pert senior at the fictitious Southern California State University. She belongs to the second-best sorority on campus, Alpha Omega Pi, and is first seen as she assuredly drives to her splendidly comfortable sorority residence in her luxury green Cabrio convertible, and is excitedly greeted by the enthusiastic, cleanly scrubbed and tightly wound, ambitious new sorority president, Julie (Marisa Coughlan), and her coterie of smiling yes women, the temperamental brunette, Jeanine (Swain), and, the condescending Chinese-American, Anne Chung (Krusiec). Carolyn, the only blonde member, is a trusted confidant to Julie and is highly thought of as someone who is energetic, reliable and a model for perfection. The aim this year for the ethnically diversified sorority house is to become more diversified and to beat out the statuesque blonde-dominated sorority from across the street, Tri-Omega, that always wins honors for campus “Sorority of the Year.” To this end, Julie welcomes the freshmen pledges of a Filipino and an African-American and, thereby, hopes to gain the support of the school for their liberal recruitment policy. She also proposes a mentor program for a group of physically and mentally handicapped young men preparing for the “Challenge Games” (Special Olympics). It’s a blatant call for the sorority to use its charity efforts to selfishly promote its own agenda, without really caring about those it is helping. Carolyn and her roomie Jeanine are repelled at working with such unsightly individuals, but Julie has made up her mind that this is the ticket to getting the first-place trophy.

All the sorority sisters stand in their matching sweater-and-skirt uniforms and nervously watch as the handicapped athletes get off their school bus. Jeanine takes one look at the abnormal looking pupil she is assigned to and runs away in dread, and later gets ostracized by her sorority for not being a team player. The shallow Carolyn struggles to keep her true feelings hidden, as she’s assigned to coach the retarded looking Pumpkin (Hank Harris-he’s not impaired). He can hardly stand, as he’s too used to being in a wheelchair. He also could hardly speak, as he tries to tell her something but can’t get the words out. It turns out he has fallen in love with her, and to please her he throws the discus and relentlessly drills at home. This results in a tremendous physical improvement for him to the astonishment of his protective mom, Judy Romanoff (Blethyn). She’s lonely and despondent ever since her husband died and has become a secretive lush in the confines of her rich suburban home, as she hoists glasses of Scotch as easily as she talks with an air of snobbishness to her other snotty country club friends.

Carolyn enrolls in a poetry workshop class taught by a rebel black professor (Harry Lennix), who tells her that the class poem she wrote “Ode to Pasadena” lacks real emotion. He points out that poetry can’t be taught, that it must come from the individual’s own inner feelings, sufferings, and experiences. By the film’s end she reads another equally bad poem “I once had a dream that I could turn pumpkins into coaches, but the world said no.” It’s about the personality changes she’s undergone and she writes about the dream she has to make the world a better place to live in. This one also lacks emotion.

Warming up to her charge and intrigued by his good nature Carolyn, for all the wrong reasons, secretly throws together a double-date beach picnic by getting her overweight and lonely poetry workshop acquaintance Cici, who was rejected by all the sororities on campus, a blind date with the wheelchair-bound Pumpkin. They have nothing in common, except both are thought of by society as losers and deserving of pity. Her date, Kent, thinks she’s insensitive for doing this and sides with Cici when she asks to be driven home after sobbing and expressing resentment that Carolyn thinks so little of her that she got her this date with a freak.

Carolyn’s controlled life comes rudely apart as she’s torn by mixed feelings over how to deal with both Kent and Pumpkin. She has fallen in love with Pumpkin’s “beautiful soul.” Becoming forgetful of her duties and losing sight of who she is, her sorority loses their two star minority pledges to their rival because she doesn’t show up to meet them during pledge day. To make matters worst, Pumpkin’s mother accuses her of raping her son. This causes her to get banished from the sorority house. In the midst of this confusion, Carolyn turns away from Kent and turns to Pumpkin for solace. Her self-discovery about who she now might be comes after the disastrous king and queen school ball, where for political reasons she’s allowed back into the sorority house in order to be queen while Kent is the king. But the honored recipients have a falling out after Pumpkin surprisingly shows up and asks to dance with the queen. She feels disappointed with everyone and voluntarily leaves the college to attend the lesser Long Beach Tech, and to show how far down she has come — she stays at a shoddy boarding house, where all the boarders are minority students and find her to be a mysterious stranger.

The film’s main players go from being real people to cartoon figures at the blink of an eye, which leaves us laughing at them one minute and the next minute wondering if we are now supposed to care about them. This makes it difficult to determine if the film is now aiming to be a parody or a soap opera story. The only exception is Pumpkin, he remains the same throughout the film. He appears to be a likable guy who wants to lay the gorgeous blonde. There’s nothing special about Pumpkin, as he is just an ordinary guy who happens to be handicapped–which is the apt description Kent provided in his call for tolerance and acceptance of him for who he is.

For Pumpkin to dream about something impossible is OK, but in life one must acknowledge what it is one can realistically obtain and settle for that. To shoot for the moon and leave all other options closed, usually spells disaster. This relates to the film’s major flaw, it couldn’t make up its mind about how its impossible love story would ultimately go down.

Somewhere along the way to a perfect film parody, the filmmakers got lost in a ham-fisted approach to dealing with the characters they were juggling around as so many puppets on a string–each stereotyped according to a generality. Therefore you have shallow blondes, bourgeois suburban housewives, uptight sorority sisters (who are compared to the “Stepford wife”), a know-it-all school psychologist, a confrontational prof, aspiring to be middle-class minority students, patronizing charity workers, superficial liberals and sundry other caricatures, all mocked for being phonies. The only one who comes through untouched by cynical hands is Pumpkin. Yet he performs miraculous physical feats, beats up a star athlete, and makes off with the prize co-ed on campus. We are asked to accept that as real. I would have found this all to be more fun if the script actually had some sharp teeth in its satire and the acting wasn’t so rigid. Ricci is interchangeable as an actress with Reese Witherspoon and suffers from the same vacuous looks Reese gives when pumping up her performance. This was not the right role for the talented actress. The other major stars weren’t terribly interesting either, with Sam Ball being the best of the bad lot. Coughlan was your typical Hollywood heavy, while Swain annoyed by chewing the scenery unmercifully. The best performance honors goes to Hank Harris, who is characterless but fails to disappoint because he doesn’t do much.

“Pumpkin” went too far off the cliff, yet it was nice ride downhill while it lasted. It was the kind of film I wished wasn’t so flawed, because it could have been going somewhere substantial if it could have reined in its story and not have tried to have its pumpkin and eat it. It just couldn’t make up its mind about what to say about Carolyn’s fling with Pumpkin. Also, in all fairness, if Pumpkin was the equal of everyone else, why was he not made fun of for his unrealistic fantasy and why was he considered so spiritual when he wasn’t? Are we to believe everyone who is disabled, is of a high spiritual birth?

The film never had as much resolution or fire in its belly as the more honestly cruel “Storytelling,”Todd Solondz’s recent venture into suburbia. “Pumpkin” left more question marks about its Cinderella fairy-tale story than resounding answers.

Pumpkin Poster

REVIEWED ON 8/31/2002 GRADE: B –