Satire is a tricky genre to pull off on film. While characters and targets may start off exaggerated, they should gradually come into focus and grow three dimensions by the end. Painting a satire too broadly is a setup for disaster; while the material should get laughs out of its brutal, unblinking, underlying truths, it first needs to have something of importance to say. "Pumpkin," directed by Anthony Abrams and Adam Larson Broder, is a particularly biting and un-PC satire of campus life, the mentally challenged, forbidden love, and college sororities. The fresh, no-holds-barred screenplay (by Adam Larson Broder) stands as a stepping stone for some deeply focused performances and a surprisingly large laugh quotient. Indeed, "Pumpkin" is one of the funniest motion pictures of the year, but it is also one of the most curiously depressing. Even while we laugh heartily at the inspired gags offered up, we are turned off by the meanspiritedness left in its wake.
A senior at Southern California State University, Carolyn McDuffy (Christina Ricci) is as vacuously cheerful and artificial as any of her fellow sisters at the Alpha Omega Pi sorority house. In a desperate bid to finally win the university's "Sorority of the Year" award, leader Julie (Marisa Coughlan) signs everyone up to instruct and prepare a group of physically and mentally challenged people for the upcoming "Challenge Games." When Carolyn first meets the oddly-named, "retarded" Pumpkin (Hank Harris), she is distraught by not knowing how to communicate with him. Pumpkin is so smitten, however, that he begins strength-training on his own (going as far as learning how to walk for long periods of time without his wheelchair) in order to impress her. As they spend more time together, Carolyn is frightened by her own burgeoning feelings for Pumpkin, whom she believes understands her in a way no one else does. The harsh consequences of Carolyn starting a relationship with Pumpkin finally leads her to a life-changing epiphany about just how unfair and cruel the world can really be.
"Pumpkin" mixes pitch-black comedy with a congenial, star-crossed love story, and the results are decidedly mixed. The former is nearly always on target. First-time directors Anthony Abrams and Adam Larson Broder will go to any length for a laugh, and they succeed far more often than not. While much of the humor (some of it directed at the physically disabled) is painted with outlandish broad strokes, there is also many subtle touches that tickle the funny bone just as much. One's likeliness of going along with the off-kilter tone will, no doubt, depend on how easily they are offended.
Meanwhile, the romance that forms between Carolyn and Pumpkin is meant to be effective and touching, but it isn't. While Carolyn constantly prattles on about how Pumpkin sees her in a light that nobody else ever has, nothing that shows up onscreen convinces us of this. At just under two hours, the love story is given too much screen time and not enough substance. With the three or four false endings on display, the film could have easily been cut down to a tighter, more efficient 90 minutes.
More cogent is what comes out of the connection between the two characters. In particular, the way in which Pumpkin changes Carolyn into a better, less superficial human being is done with a solid hand. Carolyn's fed-up responses to her narrow-minded sorority sisters and her contradictory, back-peddling poetry professor (Harry J. Lennix) are priceless. So is her well-meaning, but disastrous failure to set up Pumpkin with an intelligent, overweight classmate (Melissa McCarthy), which leads to a trip to the beach that has to be seen to be believed. While never losing sight of its outrageous eccentricity, at the heart of the film is the lovely journey Carolyn takes to self-discovery.
Christina Ricci (1999's "Sleepy Hollow
"), who also gets a producer credit, has been given her most indelible role, to date, and her perceptively accurate performance as Carolyn is right up there with her turn in 1998's "The Opposite of Sex." Ricci clearly understands the kind of movie she is making. She takes the part dead-seriously, but never forgets that she, and her character, are rooted in a very dark comedy. As Pumpkin, Hank Harris is so unaffected that it is almost inconceivable to discover he has no real-life mental or physical afflictions.
Surrounding Ricci and Harris is a supporting cast who also capture the satiric tone just right. Brenda Blethyn (2002's "Lovely & Amazing") is Pumpkin's protective mother, who accuses Carolyn of pedophilia when she catches her in bed with the teenaged Pumpkin; Dominique Swain (2002's "Happy Campers") is Carolyn's roommate, Jeanine, whose initial reaction to meeting the challenged person she has been paired with is hilarious in its sheer wackiness; Marisa Coughlan (2002's "Super Troopers
") is snooty, decidedly deranged sorority leader Julie; and Sam Ball is Carolyn's hunky, tennis-playing boyfriend, Kent.
As good as the actors are, "Pumpkin" remains ambitious, yet unfocused. For a satire, the messages sent out aren't terribly incisive or provocative, and the movie's nasty undercurrent leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Then again, maybe that's the point. Just as Carolyn is appalled by those around her's prejudices and cruelty, so are we. As a showcase for Christina Ricci's talent and some excellent comedic writing, "Pumpkin" is a worthwhile way to spend a few hours. But be forewarned: what surrounds them is the embodiment of human ugliness and despair.
©2002 by Dustin Putman