Recently, Christina Ricci has made some very public declarations. For instance, her childhood was stressful; making Prozac Nation “was total hell”; the entertainment industry can be hard on a girl; she used to suffer from anorexia but doesn’t now; and, as she tells Parade magazine (possibly the most mainstream and so, “public” venue she might have chosen), she’s made a decision to “be happy,” to give up her “active self-destructive tendencies.” Surely, it’s good to know that she’s feeling better, especially since the opposite trajectory is far more common in True Hollywood Stories.
Still, before she started her current round of interviews, many people may not have known that Ricci was going through these hard times, as her previous tack was not to talk to big-fat magazines with bijillions-plus readerships, but rather, to stick with more offbeat mags, like Interview.
This isn’t to say she hasn’t been visible for most of her life. The 22-year-old has already survived child-stardom: before The Addams Family, she lived through making Mermaids with Cher and Winona Ryder). Her choices as a teen and adult, however, have been seriously “independent,” playing the object of Vincent Gallo’s obsession in Buffalo 66, a be-night-gowned damsel in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, and the gloriously hardhearted center of all attention in Don Roos’ The Opposite of Sex.
These days, when she’s not posing in scant clothing for magazine spreads or recalling for interviewers her last season’s work in the thankfully defunct Ally McBeal, Ricci is appearing in the Coen brother’s too-cool-for-the-room Gap ads with Dennis Hopper, and still waiting for the release of Prozac Nation, shelved when author Elizabeth Wurtzel made “untoward” comments regarding 9-11.
In Pumpkin, Ricci plays against type, if she has a type. As seemingly stereotypical sorority girl Carolyn McDuffy, she’s about as far from Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods as she could possibly be. Blond, yes, but horrified rather than resilient as she comes into self-consciousness, increasingly grim rather than incessantly perky. This makes sense, given that Carolyn lives in a movie that imagines itself a dark satire of those college-set romantic comedies, of which Legally Blonde is a frothy, light-hearted satire. Now, it may be that the light satire is more incisive than the dark, but really, this isn’t a contest. The two movies only happen to resemble one another, plot-wise.
Besides, Pumpkin draws its satirical juice from a variety of sources, all obvious. Perhaps the most obvious targets are Carolyn’s sorority sisters at Southern California State University, including head sister in the house Julie (Marisa Coughlan, whose ability to pick nearly unreadably offbeat films, including Tom Green’s When Freddy Got Fingered, appears unmatched) and her insidiously stepfordish sister/roommate Jeanine (Dominique Swain). These dark-haired girls at Alpha Omega Pi are jealous of their blond rivals over at Tri Omega, and will do anything to win the big sorority contest this year. To that end, Julie arranges for her girls to mentor young male athletes prepping for the “Challenged Games,” something like the Special Olympics, but smaller, pitting two California county teams against one another.
At first the girls are all ewwwy about the venture, Jeanine going so far as to scream and run off in a panic when she first meets her mentee. Though she is also repulsed by her charge, Pumpkin Romanoff (Hank Harris), Carolyn tries her best to seem receptive, barely containing her disgust while teaching him to toss a discus and kick a soccer ball. After a couple of meetings, and some passing encouragement from her tennis star boyfriend Kent (Sam Ball, who has a jaw that looks like Bruce Campbell’s plus a Dudley Do-right prosthetic—amazing), Carolyn starts to think that Pumpkin can see into her soul. She attributes this ability to his having suffered pain, which she, of course, has not.
Carolyn imagines that experiencing pain will make her deep, and to help her out, the rest of the film has her suffering a lot of it. Though Pumpkin’s well-intentioned mother (Brenda Blethyn) tries half-heartedly to keep her son away from the girls she comes to see as a “whore,” it’s clear that Carolyn’s sense of destiny will prevail. And if her “development” takes her down a few roads she doesn’t anticipate, you can see them coming a mile away. What’s less easy to predict is how and where the film is headed, emotionally and politically. As Carolyn endures (even actively pursues) one devastation after another—loss of her boyfriend, her sorority membership, her friends, her self-esteem—Pumpkin‘s tone becomes increasingly erratic.
While the movie makes fun of all kinds of prejudices (as the sorority girls endeavor to rush “diversity” quota-fillers, or struggle with their fears of the “challenged” boys), it encourages viewers to laugh at the targets of prejudice, much as the Farrelly brothers’ movies tend to do (remember Ben Stiller chucking Frisbees at his “challenged” play partner’s head). So, watching Pumpkin try to stand from his wheelchair, lift weights, or play soccer is made to look simultaneously “heroic” and a likely object of the audience’s self-conscious laughter. You pay for your pleasure. But you still get your pleasure. Sort of.
Co-produced by Ricci and directed by Anthony Abrams and Adam Larson Broder (who teamed up previously to write the story for 1998’s Dead Man on Campus), the film’s contrariness is less well-aimed than it might have been. Surely, there are “incorrect” images and jokes, but there are many more broad lobs at easy targets: air-headed sorority girls; a self-loving poetry teacher (Harry Lennix); Carolyn’s hideously rich, ignorant, and selfish mother Chippy (Lisa Banes); Kent and his one-dimensional studly teammates. Poor Kent does catch the brunt of the film’s cruelty, as his sense of shame when Carolyn chooses to bed a “retard” over him, leads to an incredibly hysterical highway drive, complete with cliff and screeching brakes, all leading him to become a “better person.” (You don’t even want to know how this happens.)
But aside from such brief lunacies and Ricci’s incredibly straight, and so, incredibly effective, performance, Pumpkin mostly settles for jokes that you’ve already seen over-killed elsewhere. The aggressive “bad taste” and gotcha humor, plainly conjured with the intent to appall or surprise, are finally not so transgressive as they are mainstream and common. Carolyn’s journey takes her rolling over the feelings of various friends and acquaintances—not least of all Pumpkin, whom she abuses, ostensibly unintentionally, again and again. The movie appears to be making fun of making fun of “retards,” “gimps,” frat boys, rich people, et. al. But the “making” part is too strained and the “fun” part is too stale.