Friday, December 01, 2006

Movie Log: Pennies From Heaven

I guess I'm still slowly working through the Steve Martin catalog (going mostly backwards), because I just got to this odd movie.

According to my quick, desultory research, the movie Pennies from Heaven was based on a seven-hour BBC miniseries of the same title from a few years prior, which strikes me as odd, since this movie felt a bit long to me. (Maybe that's an artifact of the movie plot just hitting all of the high points of the miniseries without linking them appropriately, but it did feel like the whole story was in the movie.)

This is a Depression-era musical; Steve Martin plays a sheet-music salesman and Bernadette Peters is the schoolteacher he seduces, abandons, and then runs into again. I suspect the audience is supposed to find Martin a mostly sympathetic figure, but I thought he was a whiny cad with no concept of the real world. The musical numbers are deliberately intrusive, and very disconnected from the regular plot -- characters break into song-and-dance numbers at emotionally appropriate points, but it seems, for a long time, that this may just be in Martin's character's head. But then the movie spoils that interpretation by having a Peters musical number when he's nowhere nearby. The music is clearly a break from the workaday world -- this is, of course, A Theme, and the source of most of Martin's character's angst. The musical bits are all good, and the concept is interesting, but, I'm afraid, the caddishness of Martin's character kept me from really caring -- I felt that he deserved whatever happened to him.

Anyone coming to this expecting comedy -- which would be natural, with Martin and Peters -- will be disappointed; it's a sad movie, with a massively unearned happy ending. Unfortunately, I kept comparing it in my head to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, another highly stylized period movie with deliberately intrusive music and moral questions, and Pennies From Heaven kept losing on all those comparisons. But fans of song-and-dance will probably love this movie -- Christopher Walken's scene is excellent, and the first rendition of "Pennies from Heaven," by the Accordion Man, is transcendently good. I'll also say that this movie is awfully adult about sex in a way that movies mostly aren't these days.

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