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"PUMPKIN"
(2002) (Christina Ricci, Hank Harris) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: A sorority sister's life is turned upside down when she starts falling for a mentally and physically challenged young man.
PLOT:
Carolyn McDuffy (CHRISTINA RICCI) is a senior at Southern California State University who loves her sorority, Alpha Omega Pi. A bright and bubbly young woman, Carolyn's life has been both easy and happy, much like her elitist mother, Chippy (LISA BANES).

Yet, when sorority president Julie Thurber (MARISA COUGHLAN) - in her quest to outdo a rival house for Sorority of the Year honors - decides they should help train some mentally and physically handicapped athletes for the Challenged Games, Carolyn and her roommate, Jeanine Kryszinsky (DOMINIQUE SWAIN), raise their voices in protest.

Despite their belief that such people aren't "right" and don't convey the image the sorority should project, the two girls - along with the rest of the sorority sisters - are each assigned their own athlete to help. Carolyn's is Pumpkin Romanoff (HANK HARRIS), a young man in a wheelchair who's so taken with her that he can only repeat her name. This, of course, freaks her out.

Her boyfriend, university tennis star Kent Woodlands (SAM BALL), thinks she's making too much out of nothing and adds that such people are just like them beyond God choosing to make them a little different. Carolyn reluctantly continues with the training, but then seems to be off in a different world in both her sorority functions as well as in class, such as with poetry professor Robert Meary (HARRY J. LENNIX).

This is because she now sees that the world isn't perfect and thus she's ready to quit on Pumpkin when he states that she's his friend and says that she's beautiful inside. Carolyn's view of him suddenly changes, and she even tries to set him up with her dateless friend, Cici Pinkus (MELISSA McCARTHY). When that goes disastrously wrong, Carolyn finds herself drawn even closer to Pumpkin, much to the dismay of Kent, her sorority sisters and the boy's overprotective mother, Judy (BRENDA BLETHYN).

From that point on, and as Carolyn's life is turned upside down due to her actions, self-discovery and newfound love for Pumpkin, whose condition improves due to her interest in him, she must decide what's right for her in life.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Satire, the rapier of intelligent comedy and commentators, is a double-edged sword. If handled correctly, it can be razor sharp and easily slice through misconceptions, stereotypes and steadfast convictions, all while making the viewer laugh, as was the case with films such as "Wag the Dog."

Conversely, if handled incorrectly, satire can end up cutting the hand of the user, turning what could have been witty observations and commentary into a messing and unpleasant bloodbath that no one wants to watch and few will find entertaining. Such was the case with the failed and not surprisingly little seen effort, "But I'm A Cheerleader" about gay and lesbian "rehabilitation."

Unfortunately, the latest such attempt at social commentary and comedy, "Pumpkin," falls into the latter category. When I first heard about the film and its snooty sorority sister falls for handicapped athlete plot, I figured it was going to be a romp through political incorrectness. While potentially offensive, such non-PC efforts can be funny simply by going against the grain in a world where the only villains filmmakers can use anymore - without offending anyone - are middle aged white men or WWII era Nazis or their contemporary fascist offspring.

The brotherly filmmaking duo known as the Farrelly brothers have made a living using and/or playing off such material, and in their most popular film to date ("There's Something About Mary"), they included various gags revolving around a mentally handicapped character named Warren. Rather than being mean, however, the material - much like in their other films -- was done in something of a loving way where the humor stemmed from the character rather than making fun of him.

While such attempts obviously don't work all of the time and can still be offensive to some viewers (particularly when the envelope is pushed so far it can never again be sealed), I was looking forward to seeing what first time co-directors Adam Larson Broder and Tony R. Abrams could do with this material.

Rather than stemming their humor from the mentally and/or physically handicapped athletes, the filmmakers, who work from a screenplay penned by Broder (who wrote the story for "Dead Man on Campus"), set Greek life and elitist attitudes in their comedy sights. Of course, they should have realized that they're shooting at a target that's already been riddled with satire in the past - even in broadly played films such as "Animal House" - and thus don't offer much of anything new in such regards.

The resultant attempts at humor simply don't work and thus aren't funny as the filmmakers simply retread attempts at poking fun at stereotypes about snooty people and sorority life. It's been done before and it's been done better in other films. Perhaps to compensate for that, the filmmakers have taken an odd approach at directing the film and guiding its tone.

In the film's press kit, Broder says that he wanted to "cross-pollinate genres, breaking the audience free from their normal expectations." I'm not sure if he was including viewers wanting to see a good film in that grouping, as this incredibly uneven picture certainly can't be classified that way.

Beyond the hodgepodge of various genre elements and related scenes being jumbled together (with some seemingly coming out of the blue and being rather disparate from the rest), the performances are purposefully over the top (but not always), character motivations and behavior switch at the drop of a hat (most realism has been thrown out the window) and overwrought music often accompanies scenes that normally wouldn't include such songs and/or score.

All of that's supposed to be funny outright or at least in a satirical sense, but little if any of it's either amusing or witty. Instead, it's increasingly irritating and a bit perplexing as one tries to figure out what the filmmakers are really try to satirize beyond the superficial sorority material.

Buried beneath all of that lies a somewhat sweet story about a girl and a boy falling for each other despite the odds and objections from nearly everyone they know. Yet, that doesn't get as much time as it needs to develop, is obscured by the odd directorial and writing approach, and never really manages to get past the stereotypical, after-school/movie of the week conventions in which it exists.

Considering the purposeful overacting, there isn't much good to be said about most of the performances. Like much of the film, the often reliable Christina Ricci ("Sleepy Hollow," "The Opposite of Sex") is wildly uneven in her approach at playing her character and thus doesn't engage the viewer or elicit any sympathy for her predicament.

Hank Harris ("Delivering Milo," "Mercury Rising") does the best job of the bunch playing the challenged young man, but we never get to know as much about him as we should. Brenda Blethyn ("Lovely & Amazing," "Saving Grace") is near completely wasted as his overprotective mother and can't do much with her stereotypical, but limited role.

The likes of Dominique Swain ("Happy Campers," "Lolita") and Marisa Coughlan ("Freddy Got Fingered," "Super Troopers") pretty much fall into the same boat as they overplay their sorority sister stereotypes, while newcomer Sam Ball is most notable for his square-jawed chin that looks so much like a superhero bit of makeup that it nearly makes one overlook his poorly written role.

Although it initially appears as if it might be a distant cousin to "Legally Blonde" and occasionally resembles "Heathers" but never manages to be dark, edgy or hilariously subversive like that effort, the film simply doesn't work. It's hard to say whether it's the basic, underlying premise and story or the way in which the filmmakers have tackled it that's the culprit, but whatever the case, this "Pumpkin" isn't colorful or tasty enough to fulfill its intentions. The film rates as just a 3 out of 10.




Reviewed June 25, 2002 / Posted July 5, 2002


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