directed by Anthony Abrams,
Adam Larson Broder
(United Artists, 2002)

If it were appropriate to hand out lifetime achievement awards to 23-year-olds, no doubt Christina Ricci would have one -- perhaps several. In the past 13 years, she's acted in nearly three dozen films, from the high-speed remake of That Darn Cat to the nearly inexplicable Buffalo '66. And let's not forget two stints as Wednesday Addams in the Addams Family chronicles.

With Pumpkin, however, the dark-haired, darkly humorous Ricci has a real challenge on her hands: playing a blond sorority bimbo who's tempted to give up her Stepford life when she suddenly becomes attracted to a physically and (perhaps) mentally challenged young man (Hank Harris).

It's all very innocent at first, but things quickly change for the worse when Carolyn McDuffy (Ricci) begins to realize how much better Pumpkin Romanoff (Harris) makes her life.

McDuffy's not going to stand for that, and neither are McDuffy's mother (Lisa Banes), Romanoff's mother (Brenda Blethyn), McDuffy's boyfriend (Samuel Ball) or McDuffy's sorority sisters, especially house president Julie Thurber (Marisa Coughlan), who's devoted every waking minute of her life to seeing that Alpha Omega Phi wins the Sorority of the Year (SOY) award from Southern California State College's Greek Council. Thurber is not about to let the lives of two human beings get in her way.

The film is further complicated by the fact that it has two directors -- Adam Larson Broder (who also wrote the script) and Anthony Abrams -- who chose to work in a combination of styles. They open with a kind of John Waters-like hypersimplicity -- McDuffy arriving at school for her final semester with teddy bear in hand and no brain in sight -- but quickly get caught up in a musically sweetened montage of McDuffy discovering she enjoys acting as mentor for the aforementioned Romanoff, preparing him to throw the discus in the upcoming Challenge Games.

At times, Pumpkin truly does seem to be the work of a committee. Yet unlike many films, which start fast and fizzle, Pumpkin gets better once it has its offbeat premise established and begins zigzagging toward its resolution. At times -- as in the scenes following McDuffy's suicide attempt -- it gets downright haunting.

But the weirder it gets, the more honest it gets -- and the better it gets.

Agendas begin to come out of the closet: It's quickly revealed, for example, how Romanoff's seemingly loving mother has been making his afflictions seem much worse than they are, possibly to keep him close to, and therefore dependent upon, her. At the same time, it becomes obvious that McDuffy's mother has campaigned just as long and hard to keep McDuffy from developing more than a chance acquaintanceship with life in the real world.

So what finally emerges is not a realistic film at all, but rather a kind of allegory or morality tale: an attempt to show just how far the powers that be will go to see that no one steps outside the bounds that have been set for them, regardless of how much good it will do of them.

That places Pumpkin in the center of a lot of crosscurrents. You might say it's part Pecker and part Romeo & Juliet, part The Graduate and part The World According to Garp, with a little bit of Invasion of the Body Snatchers thrown in just to freak you out.

Pumpkin has its problems. Much of the camerawork is functional at best; most of the characters are so flat that they can barely lay claim to having one dimension; and the dialogue ranges from overly obvious exposition to generally functional lines, but never quite makes it to memorable. And yet the film works, often when you're not expecting it to, and not in ways you're expecting it to go -- as in McDuffy's attempt to set Pumpkin up with his first date.

But that's the fun of Pumpkin. And there's plenty of it to go around. One more achievement for Ricci. As if she needed one.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 15 November 2003

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