MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY
Running Time 92 minutes
Written by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy
Directed by Bharat Nalluri
Starring Frances McDormand and Amy Adams
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a trifle of a movie confection, sweet and gummy as a jelly bean—and 10 minutes later, just as forgettable. Nothing really registers here. The casting is absurdly miscalculated. Even the costumes are wrong. It’s supposed to be set in 1939 London, on the eve of the blitz, but the party clothes are straight out of the Roaring Twenties, and Frances McDormand, in the title role, is by no stretch of the imagination another Thoroughly Modern Millie. Surrounded by so much ugliness and violence, a film this giddy should be more of a relief, but Miss Pettigrew proves that light as a bubble is not always a guaranteed antidote to tedium.
Plain as a shoehorn and destined to be one of life’s luckless losers, Miss Guinevere Pettigrew is a middle-aged governess with no personality, no references, no success and no possibilities; the polar opposite of Mary Poppins. Sacked again without severance, Miss Pettigrew is a hazard waiting to happen. Even when she reaches her place at the head of the soup line, someone knocks her bowl to the pavement. Get a grip, get a life, seize the moment, turn lemons into daiquiris: Words of advice for Miss Pettigrew come in sections, and suddenly, she hears them all. Stealing a job opening from the desk of an employment agency that has given up all hope for her future, Miss Pettigrew suddenly finds herself in a penthouse gaudily overdecorated to resemble a set piece from one of those old prewar musicals by P. G. Wodehouse, where she is mistaken for the new social secretary to a flaky American actress who calls herself Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams). In the next 24 hours, the repressed, dowdy crone finds herself in a hemline-whirling, show-business swirl of people with an endless supply of loose morals and double martinis. Amid her responsibilities, Miss Pettigrew develops a fondness for her charge, a deluded chorus girl with a mouth shaped like a valentine heart who is torn between a penniless pianist and a rich sugar daddy with deep pockets, who can make her the star of a new show called Pile on the Pepper. Nobody is who they pretend to be; even Dalysia Lafosse is really Sara Grubb from the Pittsburgh steel mill Grubbs, and I don’t mean the owners.
Before it mercifully ends, the movie shows Sara the value of a man who loves her unconditionally versus a man who can advance her career, and for reasons only the writers can explain, Miss Pettigrew finds herself drenched in Art Deco pearls, the obsession of a dirty old man dedicated to spending the rest of his life drowning her in caviar. Superficial and empty, punctuated by occasional air-raid sirens and the sound of German planes flying over oblivious Mayfair partygoers who are too busy dancing the fox trot to notice, the movie is based on a book published in 1938 by Winifred Watson, who was no Evelyn Waugh. A sterling talent like Stephen Fry could have turned this caustic drollery into something unstoppably effervescent, the way he adapted Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies into the sumptuous yet poignant Bright Young Things. Alas, screenwriters David Magee (Finding Neverland) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) have no feeling for the period, and the words that come out of the characters are pure Wedgwood. India-born Brit director Bharat Nalluri’s TV interpretation of the 2004 tsunami tragedy has in no way prepared him to tackle the mad, self-perpetuating and cynical world of drunken debutantes and social-climbing good-for-nothings that populated London when clouds of war darkened overhead. As versatile as Frances McDormand is, the role of an ugly duckling transformed into social-climbing swan guzzling Champagne in backless gown, a character who could only have been invented by Oscar Wilde, does not fit her comfortably. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day has all the literary nourishment of an egg white.