Tuesday, April 1, 2008
He Said: MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY
K always had a theory...well, not really a theory, but more of a steadfast statement...that the lead character of The 40-Year-Old Virgin was such a nice guy that the filmmakers felt compelled to make all the other men in the film absolutely terrible--sort of like, "we can't make men ALL seem so feminine, so we will over-masculinize the rest of the guys in the movie." And one must give a brilliant woman credit where credit is due...have you seen 40-Year-Old Virgin lately? Steve Carell is an absolute bastion of beautific manhood...and all his friends are macho monsters.
Sitting in a theater watching Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, I felt at times like it was Virgin's female equivalent. Frances McDormand plays the titular character, a 40's-era spinster and notoriously unreliable housekeeper who has a tendency to lose every low-paying job she acquires. But Miss Pettigrew is such a kind woman...she has been around the block and knows what life is about. She is kind, unassuming, honest, and caring...in many ways, she is completely infallible by the film's standards. But damn is she surrounded by some high-society bitches!
Pettigrew's one flaw is the act that sets the film into motion--flat broke and terribly hungry, she concocts a scam to get a job after being thrown out of the unemployment office. She picks up the name a high-profile client and shows up posing as an assistant sent by the agency. On the other side of the door is Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), the first of many snobbish, money-grubbing high-society women Miss Pettigrew encounters during the film. Delysia is central among them, an aspiring actress who accumulates all of her social power by courting three different men at once--one because she loves him, and the other two because they further her cause of stardom.
Over the course of this one long day (and yes, the one-day structure of the film does, surprisingly, hold itself together from beginning to end), Delysia guides Miss Pettigrew through the glossy world of 1940s high-society London, where the wealthy female twits appear to control their men. Delysia also guides Pettigrew through the tarnished social circles beneath that glossy world, in which those wealthy twits reveal their hidden fears and inner torments.
Clearly the overtly bitchy portrayals serve to elevate Miss Pettigrew's saintly portrayal all the higher--not unlike the Carell character in Virgin. But what separates this film from the likes of Judd Apatow's comedy is how the film slowly, subtly reveals the depths of even its most superficially elitist characters. The central conceit of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is to allow Miss Pettigrew to experience a day in the life of the people she has spent her life envying, but what gradually becomes clear as the film progresses is that the structure of social classes and the creation of the "rich bitch" persona are just as concocted out of thin air as the ruse Miss Pettigrew creates for herself. Every character, from Miss Pettigrew to Delysia to the other women in their circle, has unexpected depths that reveal who they are...and why they are.
The film, directed by former television director Bharat Nalluri, packs in boatloads of plot--so much that Miss Pettigrew's "day" feels like a month, but the characters are interesting, their interplay hits a rhythm that is wonderful to behold, and the tension surrounding Miss Pettigrew's rapid ascent into London's upper class ratchets to a fascinating level. Nalluri brings a delicate touch to the film that allows the visuals to be sumptuous-yet-unassuming, and allows the story to take flight when it otherwise would stay firmly grounded. And the performances are sterling, from the always-brilliant McDormand to the pitch-perfect Adams, who toiled in small roles for years and has now, in a triad of films (Junebug, Enchanted, and now this), revealed herself to be one of the great acting geniuses currently working.
I would bet large sums of money that mine is the only review to compare Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day to The 40-Year-Old Virgin. And yes, thanks to my wife, a connection does exist. But as much as I always loved Virgin, Miss Pettigrew exists in a realm far different...and a realm far more--pleasantly, delightfully--complex.