Picked Flick #73: Pennies from Heaven
Such is again the case with Herbert Ross' Pennies from Heaven, his opulent but abrasive adaptation of Dennis Potter's BBC miniseries, which I have never seen. A major money loser for MGM, once so synonymous with tuneful crowd-pleasers, the film possesses a royal flush of attributes almost certain to alienate popular audiences. Steve Martin cast as a basically unsympathetic character. An entire cast that lip-synchs instead of singing, and to scratchy standards and thrift-store arcana to boot. Trajectories into squalor and unhappiness instead of out of it. Fiddle-dee-dee! Little in the movie even implies that it will formally stray from a miserabilist Depression-era drama with wry, almost mocking undertows until Martin suddenly opens his mouth and moves his lips in semi-tandem with a 1930s radio hit that comes from nowhere. Not long after, these incongruous moments of song flower into fully-blown, toe-tapping, Art Deco extravaganzas, like the gleaming sequence where a colonnade of tuxedoed chaps rain money and romance on a debonair Martin and his floating, platinum goddesseven as, in the forlornly designated "real world," he's being turned down for a bank loan. The pixie dust keeps sifting and the songs keep coming as a sad schoolmistress (Bernadette Peters) is impregnated out of wedlock or even lovelock, as the local pimp softshoes and splitses his way into coercive ownership of this broken dame, as our dissatisfied and disloyal protagonist extends his record of abandonments and assaults, and as the whole glittering kaboodle builds to a climactic execution.
The unexpected alignments of the movie's core elements and their dissonant cultural connotations were, I suppose, doomed to win the film a reputation as an act of vandalismeither by undermining the nostalgic appeal of the music and the choreography, all of which is utterly stellar, or by trivializing the incidents of the narrative, which speaks with real earnestness to problems of restlessness, misogyny, and the plexiglas ceiling of social class. What interests me in the movie is the idea that neither of its faces, the sweet or the sour, necessarily comes at the expense of the other. In fact, at a level so far above Ross' other movies that you can't even see them from here, Pennies from Heaven presents a dazzling and thought-provoking worldview where pop dreams and common predicaments are interfused every day, often to deleterious effect, but would we have it any other way? Even in our starkest moments, do we ever wish to go without our dreams or romantic fancies, any more than we would wish this film to go without its sleek art direction, its marvelously controlled performances (especially from a remarkable Jessica Harper as Martin's wife), its exciting range of dance styles and tones, its charming, attic-scented hopechest of songs, its breathtaking and allusive images shot by the legendary D.P. of Manhattan and The Godfather? You often cannot know where Pennies from Heaven is going, unless perhaps you've seen Dancer in the Dark and are starting to ask how Lars von Trier got away with quite so much pilfering. Stretched between these two poles, a story of inexorable decline and a bouquet of formal surprises, Pennies from Heaven is as taut and cutting as piano wire, but it's also a dream on a cloud. Who's to say these things can't go together? (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)