- The Washington Times - Friday, July 5, 2002

"Pumpkin," a parodistic fiasco with extenuating comic virtues and highlights, is the arguably certifiable debut feature of Adam Larson Broder and Tony R. Abrams, who began collaborating at the University of Southern California's film school.
If astutely formulated, a deadpan caprice like this one, a burlesque of tear-jerkers about forbidden love set on the time-warped campus of apocryphal Southern California State University, would run no more than 90 minutes. It would maintain a consistent comic tone, partly to prevent the audience from mistaking it for mawkish drivel in the "I Am Sam" vein and making a premature exit.
The Broder-Abrams team (evidently Mr. Broder does the lion's share of directing in the practical sense) is content to grope for stylistic assurance while allowing the plot to ramble for two hours.
Like Nuke Laloosh of "Bull Durham," Mr. Broder and Mr. Abrams are all over the place while winding up and delivering spoofs of cliched premises, situations and set pieces. Some of these are derived from movies as vintage as "Imitation of Life," "The Bad and the Beautiful," "A Summer Place" and "The Stepford Wives." Others are drawn from movies as recent as the Todd Solondz monstrosity "Storytelling" and the partners' own script for a perverse college farce, "Dead Man on Campus."
Christina Ricci, who acquired the "Pumpkin" screenplay for her production company and then hooked up with Francis Ford Coppola's resurrected American Zoetrope to get the picture made, doubles as co-producer and leading lady. She may have been more useful as the former because her temperament and the baggage of such duds as "Buffalo 66" and "The Man Who Cried" make her a dubious choice as coed heroine Carolyn McDuffy.
Carolyn returns for her senior year at SCSU and gets overwhelmed by sorority obligations and then inexplicable passion. A platinum blond with a bouffant hairdo, Carolyn is one of the leaders at Alpha Omega Pi. She also has a steady boyfriend, strong-jawed athlete Kent Woodlands, embodied by Sam Ball with such a hilarious appreciation of his own comic-strip visage and the character's towering absurdity that Carolyn seems humorously diminished in comparison.
That's especially true during the closing episodes, which allow Mr. Ball to sustain much of the nonsense. These sequences also display more satiric assurance than the movie seems to possess in its first hour and a half.
Miss Ricci is also overshadowed at the sorority by Marisa Coughlan as avid house president Julie Thurber. Julie's dedication to outmaneuvering rival Tri-Omega, the perennial choice as Sorority of the Year, has compelled a bold gambit: sponsorship of the Riverside County contingent in an annual Challenged Games. The games match handicapped competitors from Riverside and adjacent, massive Orange County.
Carolyn is assigned to mentor teenager Pumpkin Romanoff (Hank Harris), whose mug shot suggests a snaggletoothed delinquent of some kind. Initially taciturn and confined to a wheelchair, Pumpkin becomes so smitten with Carolyn that he shows remarkable improvement, gaining occasional powers of articulation and locomotion while she coaches him in discus and javelin-throwing, soccer-ball kicking and hula dancing. One deduces that Pumpkin must be entered in a somewhat eccentric decathlon competition.
To her surprise, Carolyn returns the tender sentiments. Confronting her thing for Pumpkin leads to upheavals with Kent, her sorority sisters and Pumpkin's widowed mother, played by Brenda Blethyn. Miss Blethyn is pretty much wasted until she can bellow "Slut. Prostitute. Pedophile" at the fleeing Miss Ricci after finding Carolyn in Pumpkin's bed.
Several calamities pile up during the last act, dragged out so perversely that even the excessive running time starts to seem funny. Mr. Ball's contribution to the suffering is especially satisfying. Ultimately, all hatchets are buried as Pumpkin runs a final relay leg at the big games.

The press material says Mr. Broder and Mr. Abrams really intended some episodes to play as squarely and ponderously as they would in a conventional tear-jerker about young love. If that's their story, I guess they should stick to it, but as a practical matter, "Pumpkin" simply misfires and looks moronic when it pretends to be sincerely banal and sappy.
The most conspicuous example is a prolonged sequence that begins with Carolyn's addled attempt to host a double date at the beach, with Kent as her companion and Pumpkin fixed up with a tubby, lovelorn acquaintance named Cici (Melissa McCarthy).
Inevitably, Cici's feelings get hurt, and she runs from the beach to a hillside parking lot. There's a funny throwaway involved with her flight: Kent runs after her but never seems to catch up, despite his obviously fitter condition. Evidently, Cici can really pick 'em up and lay 'em down when heartbroken.
Carolyn also follows, leaving Pumpkin on the sand in his wheelchair. She doesn't remember about leaving him there until sunset, but the filmmakers portray this absent-mindedness so slackly without updates of the abandoned Pumpkin, presumably soaking up a lot of sun that they undercut the surefire absurdity of it all.
Ostensibly, the justification is that audiences will be caught off guard, never quite knowing when "Pumpkin" is feigning sincerity or mockery. I suspect that the only way to guarantee a willing suspension of disbelief for such tongue-in-cheek trifling is to acknowledge your fondly mocking intentions from the outset and then elaborate them with a minimum of foot-dragging.
"Pumpkin" reveals genuine comic flair and invention, but it also dallies and blunders so much that potential admirers will have to be as patient as Pumpkin on the beach as they wait for the comic bailouts.

**
TITLE: "Pumpkin"
RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor, including a facetious interlude of simulated intercourse; elements of morbid and tasteless humor; fleeting nudity)
CREDITS: Directed by Adam Larson Broder and Tony R. Abrams. Written by Mr. Broder.
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes

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