This is the story of a movie that can't decide what it wants to be. In trying to be daring and original, it comes off as only occasionally satirical and never fresh. And instead of simply delivering its messages (accept people for what they are; not all disabilities are visible to the eye), it forces them.
In "Pumpkin," college senior Carolyn McDuffy (Christina Ricci) discovers that her sorority's president, Julie (Marisa Coughlan), has come up with a plan for their Alpha Omega Pis to win sorority of the year: The sisters will take on the Challenged Games as their off-campus charity, mentoring Riverside County's mentally and physically challenged athletes for their annual match against Orange County. The AOPs will thus defeat their arch enemies, the Tri Omegas (all blond, all over 5 feet 8 inches tall). And Carolyn and her tennis-playing frat stud, Kent (Sam Ball), will be King and Queen at the big dance.
Enter the wheelchair-bound, mentally challenged Pumpkin (Hank Harris) and his overprotective mother, Judy (Brenda Blethyn). When Carolyn is assigned to help train Pumpkin, she overcomes her fear and prejudices and falls in love. Pumpkin, of course, is immediately smitten. Suddenly, Carolyn's perfect, sunny life falls by the wayside and she's off on a journey of self-examination.
Written by Adam Larson Broder and co-directed by Broder and Tony R. Abrams, this so-called comedy is meant to shatter taboos. It levels its satirical aim at some familiar subjects: the superficial, exclusive boys and girls of the Greek system; the parents who produced them; vapid beauties and cruel jocks; and the Southern California lifestyle in general. Clichés are adapted from old movies about star-crossed lovers and misunderstood youth. (Think "West Side Story" or "Rebel Without a Cause.")
Tone becomes a major problem: The serious moments just don't jive. In one scene that clearly belongs in another movie, Carolyn describes pain as feeling "like everything inside me is shattered like a broken mirror," and Pumpkin agrees. Though supposed heroine Carolyn is meant to serve as our touchstone, she, too is among the movie's targets. Furthermore, it's never apparent that Pumpkin has a "deep soul," nor that he and Carolyn are meant for each other.
Ricci deadpans. Blethyn plays one-note hysteria. The last half-hour drags and is beyond any suspension of disbelief. Most disturbing, the film draws repeated parallels between African-Americans and the mentally challenged. Throwaways like "Pumpkin's not going to sit in the back of the bus anymore" and "He's a true champion, like Carl Lewis in all ways" do a disservice to both groups.
The filmmakers say they set out to play with filmmaking conventions and the ways in which audiences watch movies. Quoth producer Karen Barber, "In every scene, the question arises: 'Is it a joke or not a joke?' Everything is both a joke and not a joke." Go figure.