“A glamorous, witty period comedy” is how NPR’s Bob Mondello describes Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and he is almost right. It’s a period comedy, certainly, the period being late-1930s London. And I guess you could say it’s glamorous; there are high-style costumes and Art Deco sets, a chic (lingerie) fashion show and an elegant party. So, OK: glamorous. Why not?
But witty? Not unless fast-talking characters and a general air of frivolity are your thresholds for wit. This is a film that aspires to wit in the sense that the Olive Garden aspires to Italian cuisine. The difference, of course, has something to do with taste.
The misguided Mondello is not the only critic to get this wrong. Claudia Puig of USA Today makes the same mistake when she observes that the “rapid-fire dialogue is often witty.” Part of what may be confusing them, among others, is the movie’s bedroom-farce structure.
Based on the 1938 novel by Winifred Watson, the film, as its title suggests, takes in the action of a single day. Delysia (as in “delicious”) Lafosse, played by Enchanted’s Amy Adams, is a starlet who is juggling three boyfriends, two of whom, a club owner and an impresario’s son, can help her career, and one of whom, a pianist (played by Lee Pace of the oddly entertaining Pushing Daisies), is clearly her true love.
Enter Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand), a failed governess who wangles her way into a job as Delysia’s social secretary. In that position, she sorts out the starlet’s romantic entanglements while somehow finding time to concoct one of her own.
There is a critical consensus that Adams and McDormand are high among the strengths of this movie, which was directed by Bharat Nalluri (The Crow: Salvation). Stephen Holden of The New York Times agrees, but manages to misunderstand Adams’ contribution.
Holden compares her performance as the ditzy, childlike, fecklessly sexy Delysia to the work of Jean Arthur, who is best remembered for her roles as wised-up, smart-mouthed gals in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The obvious inspiration for Delysia is Marilyn Monroe, who made a career of seeming ditzy, childlike and fecklessly sexy. (Even People’s frequently clueless Leah Rozen figured that out, although she flagrantly overpraises the film as a “delightful champagne cocktail of a comedy.”)
The consensus about Adams and McDormand is correct. Their performances are genuine strengths of this lightweight comedy, as is the chemistry between them. The invincibly winsome Adams, who was captivating in the wonderful Junebug and hilarious in Enchanted, has a promising career ahead of her. As for McDormand, well, everyone agrees she is one of the best, as her droll and disciplined work here just goes to show.
Rex Reed, the old-school critic, who now writes for the New York Observer, doesn’t much care for McDormand’s performance, doesn’t have much to say about Adams and, overall, is a tad harsh on a film that, despite its many shortcomings, does possess stray fragments of charm. But he comes closer than most to getting it right when he complains, “Miss Pettigrew proves that light as a bubble is not always a guaranteed antidote to tedium.”
Are you listening, Leahemail@example.com