Pumpkin

Sundance Film Festival (Competition), Jan 19 2001″Too rambling and diffuse for its own good, Pumpkin, Adam Larson Broder and Tony R. Abrams' feature directorial debut, is a youth comedy that suffers from an uncertain tone and conflicting intentions. Christina Ricci, one of the most audacious actresses of her generation, is well cast as an ambitious member of the Alpha Omega Pi club, determined to use any means to unseat the Tri-Omegas as Sorority of the Year.

Film's humor vacillates between the Farrelly brothers' gross-out and outrageous kind and that of a softer, kinder, message-oriented romp, a blend that proves frustrating, and not particularly enjoyable, especially in the first part of the picture. The best thing for this UA summer release, which premiered at the Sundance Dramatic Competition, is to be sent back to the editing room, where is should be streamlined and cut by at least 20 minutes of its excessive running time, which will not damage at all its coherence or integrity.

As written by co-helmer Broder, Pumpkin begins as a rude, nasty comedy in the vein of Michael Lehmann's Heathers and the Farrelly's There's Something About Mary. Perky, blond and perceiving herself as “just about perfect,” Carolyn McDuffy (Ricci) plans to win the title and please the Greek Council by wooing some quality minority rushees and picking a “killer charity,” in this case, coaching athletes for the Challenged Games, a Special Olympics-type event for the mentally and physically handicapped.

All the girls are in a state of anxiety and anticipation, when the boys' bus arrives on campus. To her shock and chagrin, Carolyn is assigned to work with a shy, insecure guy named Pumpkin Romanoff (Harris). An outcast par excellence, who's confined to a wheelchair, up until now Pumpkin has been utterly dependent on his overprotective, domineering mother (Brenda Blethyn, overacting), who claims she's the only one who knows what's best for her “special” boy.
The writers' inexperience is reflected throughout the narrative, which consists for the most part of broad types, if not stereotypes. Pumpkin's pure, sensitive soul and gentle humanity are contrasted with the athletic prowess and narcissistic sexuality of Carolyn's macho boyfriend (Ball), a handsome, not-too-bright jock. Most of the girls, particularly Carolyn's roommate, Jeanine (Lolita's Dominique Swain), are also narrowly conceived in a borderline caricaturistic mode.

In the first reel, there's some fun to be had from observing the campus rituals and fierce competition among the various groups, each trying to outshine the other while using legit and illegit means. In these episodes, Pumpkin serves as a satirical send-up of collegiate Greek life and students' reactions to just about anyone who's different or deviant from the desirable norm. At first, the scripters go out of their way to be politically correct in the racial composition of the clubs (which includes Asians, Latinas), only to spoof moments later the whole notion of “diversity” as it permeates American colleges.

To the horror of her girlfriends–Pumpkin's mother, and just about everyone else–Carolyn is not only touched by Pumpkin, but falls head over heels for him, thus turning herself into a freakish outcast. A courtship of sort ensues (not before she “forgets” him stranded on the beach), with Carolyn inspiring Pumpkin to push harder physically, while not neglecting his literary and aesthetic inclinations. The last thing one expects from American comedies is to be realistic, but the rapid physical and mental progress that Pumpkin makes over such a short period of time is nothing short of a miracle–bound to delight both coaches and therapists.

If Pumpkin were made a decade ago, it would have benefited from its purported subversive freshness and reasonably new subject. However, under the influence of the Farrellys (and others), American comedy, both the broad and the more subtle one (by, among others, Todd Solondz, Alexander Payne) over the past decade has broken just about any taboos or sacred cow in American culture, resulting in Pumpkin's love between two unlikely individuals coming across as deja vu.

Pumpkin can't decide if it's a rude, offensive comedy a la Heathers, with dark, provocative humor, or a humanistic and compassionate. Indeed, instead of walking a fine line (which is what makes the good Farrelly brothers' comedies more than just an aggregate of jokes about bathroom humor and bodily functions), Pumpkin's back-and-forth between these tendencies is not only irritating but made even worse by the coarse and abrupt editing, credited to Sloane Klevin and Richard Halsey. Structurally, the film is flawed and shapeless, unfolding as a collection of barbs and messages, but lacking punch lines, comic focus, and real cleverness.

The movie gets worse and witless as it progresses, forcing each character to repent or to be punished. Hence, it details a series of mishaps that befell Kent, who all too symmetrically endures his own injury (which destroys his athletic career), and later is asked to apologize for calling Pumpkin a “retard.” As if these were not enough, Kent humiliatingly loses a physical brawl with the frail Pumpkin in public, suggesting that Pumpkin is not only a better man but also a better lover.

In the last segments, when Pumpkin's true intent becomes clear, the comedy turns disappointing in another way. The film becomes too blatant and mushy in its message about how true feelings should override peer pressure and the desire for acceptance and popularity. It goes without saying that Pumpkin is also hampered by it predictability–the audience is always two steps ahead of the characters.

A talented and versatile actress, Ricci must have believed in the project's merits for she's credited as one of its executive producers. And while it's always interesting to follow the path of a gutsy actress, it's also sad to realize that her turn here is not a highlight but just a footnote in an otherwise brilliant career.

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