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Pennies from Heaven

Posted by martinteller on January 21, 2013

In 1934 Chicago, the struggling sheet music salesman Arthur (Steve Martin) feels trapped by his passionless marriage to Joan (Jessica Harper).  While out trying to peddle tunes, he spots the beautiful schoolteacher Eileen (Bernadette Peters).  An affair begins and ends unceremoniously, and over the course of the film everyone’s dreams are trampled by the Depression economy, people being cruddy to each other, and unfortunate circumstances.  The only comfort is song and dance.

I get why someone would love this film.  It’s got a novel concept — people escaping their miserable lives with Walter Mitty-esque flights of fancy, lip-syncing to the chipper popular ditties of the era.  It’s got stunning set design by Ken Adams, and the musical numbers are enjoyable homages (to Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire et al.) while also being innovative.  It’s bold in its relentlessly bleak narrative and unlikable protagonist.  It’s a ballsy, strange, cynical, unique film.  And hey, it’s got Christopher Walken tap-dancing in his skivvies.

But for me it was a little much.  Not too depressing, but too tiresome in how it keeps banging the same gong repeatedly.  Plot point, musical number, something horrible.  The same ironic juxtaposition, over and over again.  The movie (condensed from a British miniseries that some say is superior) has one concept and it gets boring and predictable.  The same contrast is utilized in All That Jazz, but that’s really just the last 20 minutes, not the whole movie.

You could also say that Dancer in the Dark is pretty much the same thing, but that movie works better (not perfectly, but better) because Bjork’s performance gets you deeply involved with her character.  Steve Martin doesn’t cut it.  The man is great at goofy, great at smug, great at phony.  When the script calls on him to be sincere, he doesn’t pull it off.  And arguably by that time it’s too late.  There’s anti-heroes and then there’s just guys you don’t like much and don’t care about, good or bad.  Peters is terrific, though… unfortunately she’s not the center of the film (Harper is decent but unimpressive, as usual).

I liked most of the musical numbers quite a bit, I thought they were inventive, eye-popping and sometimes charming.  But the conceit of the film was too repetitive, and propped up against a plot that’s bleak (and crass) just for the sake of supporting the idea.  We get it, the Depression sucked and people are rotten and isn’t it ever so ironic how cheery these tunes are?  There’s just not enough else there for me.  Rating: Fair (67)

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