Characters with mental or physical disabilities are not exactly staples of the collegiate-comedy genre. And most of the makers of today's teen-oriented movies would no more dare to explore the romantic and sexual needs of disabled folks than they would fill their lenses with a sea of ugly bodies all wearing crummy clothes.
So "Pumpkin," the wildly uneven but nonetheless intriguing and funny new film from a script by Adam Larson Broder, comes replete with certain insouciance and an admirable sense of daring. It's not unusual to see the quirky Christina Ricci in bed with an equally quirky young man, but the fellow in question is not usually a contestant in the "Challenged Games." Come to think of it, that very name suggests that the people at the Special Olympics were also less than comfortable with a movie poking fun at a well-heeled sorority sister who falls in love with a disabled guy named after a vegetable. Especially when it's a liaison that pretty much trashes her entire life.
But read on. For all its many flaws, "Pumpkin" has some worthwhile ideas and funny moments, and its whacked-out heart is in the right place.
It's the tale of one Carolyn McDuffy (Ricci), a preppie senior in the Greek system at Well Manicured U. who dates a standard-issue, tennis-playing hunk (Sam Ball). The young woman's sorority is trying to beat out the competition for sorority of the year or some such shallow thing, and thus pairs the designer-clad sisters with disabled athletes in training.
Carolyn becomes attracted to Pumpkin (Hank Harris), a sensitive soul. Pumpkin feels the same way. This goes down badly with a veritable plethora of cardboard cutouts, from the evil queen of the sorority (Dominique Swain) to Pumpkin's cocktail-swilling mama (a seriously underwritten character played by the numbers by Brenda Blethyn).
Larson Broder (who co-directs with Tony R. Abrams) tries to do far too much with his script. The film's generic roots lurch from conventional spoofery to meta-cinematic commentary. That was clearly intentional and it adds a certain level of interest. But "Pumpkin" also tries its darnedest to make clever reference to a wide variety of lovers-as-spurned-outsiders precursors, from "West Side Story" on. And at this point in his career, at least, Larson Broder hasn't figured out the difference between smug self-reference and clear satirical purpose. To call his main targets - the shallowness of Greeks, society's obsession with appearance - paper tigers would imply they have more of a roar than is actually the case. Much of the time, "Pumpkin" is parodying that which parodies itself.
But the characters of Pumpkin and Carolyn somehow manage to cut through all this nonsense. It's partly because the pairing is original, even though the genre traffics in the hackneyed. And it's partly because Ricci has a remarkable ability to navigate the minefields of this movie's stylistic inconsistencies - she's sufficiently eclectic to capture the eye, yet sufficiently understated that the excesses of the direction are reigned in. In a fiendishly tricky role, Harris is also warm and savvy.
The result of all this is a consistent tension between good and bad taste, warm emotionalism and outlandish stupidity. It's enough to make "Pumpkin" more interesting than most of the films with which it is competing.
2 1/2 stars
Directed by Adam Larson Broder; written by Broder, Tony R. Abrams; photographed by Tim Suhrstedt; edited by Sloane Klevin, Richard Halsey; music by John Ottman; production designed by Richard Sherman; executive-produced by Francis Ford Coppola, Linda Reisman, Willi Baer. Opens Friday, July 12. Running time: 1:53. MPAA Rating: R (language and a scene of sexuality).
Carolyn McDuffy - Christina Ricci
Pumpkin Romanoff - Hank Harris
Judy Romanoff - Brenda Blethyn
Jeanine - Dominique Swain
Julie Thurber - Marisa Coughlan
Kent Woodlands - Sam Ball Robert Meary - Harry Lennix
Chris Jones is a Chicago Tribune staff writer.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun