Pennies From Heaven Reviews
I wonder if Lars Von Trier saw this?
Oh, and STEVE MARTIN IS TERRIFIC IN THIS!
During the 1930s depression in Chicago, Arthur struggles as a salesman of records. He is also unhappily married and one random day stumbles into a desperate woman. They have sex and fall in love. The struggling woman eventually needs to resort to prostitution to make ends meet. Can Arthur and the woman form a life together on little or no income or will the state of the country rip them apart?
"You aren't a tease, are you?"
"Cause I'll cut your face."
Herbert Ross, director of Steel Magnolias, Footloose, True Colors, The Sunshine Boys, Funny Lady, and The Secret of my Suce$s, delivers Pennies from Heaven. The storyline for this picture is okay and reminded me a little of Punchline. You can tell the story can go in a lot of directions, but all inclinations is that it isn't going to go well. The acting is very good and the cast includes Steve Martin, Christopher Walken, Jessica Harper, Bernadette Peters, and Vernel Bagneris.
"You want a nice time, honey?"
"No, I like feeling miserable."
I recently DVR'd this picture off Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and found it unimpressive, long winded, with containing unneeded music numbers. I think the execution of this film could have been better. The acting was wonderful and the storyline had potential; but overall, this was a disappointment that I would skip.
"I want them to cut his thing off and bury it."
I have not seen the original BBC show of the same name, where Bob Hoskins played Arthur, the music salesman, a person who "believes in a world, where the songs come true", whatever that means...
The series, I'm told, brilliantly contrasts two sides of the social coin: hopelessly twisted and idealistic Brits whose lives are on a crash course to tragedy, and their bizarre, Brechtian musical moments, where the characters start lip-syncing and miming to period recordings of pop songs of the 1930s and such.
Already, the idea is somewhat fickle, at least, from an American standpoint. Musicals in the depression were very much aware of this dichotomy, and the audience wasn't stupid. This is why they went to seen Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Busby Berkeley numbers, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell; it was the "dream factory", after all.
All these themes of misogyny, sex lives, poverty, murder, and the like, were not new to audiences, even during the 30s. This is where, I think, the movie adaptation spectacularly fails: you have the big problem of cultural gaps (British and American depressions...), and the biggest one of all, American movie musicals, something unique to the country.
What explains the musical's ever-lasting appeal? (despite naysayers being buzz-kills). Those marvelously huge sets with art deco touches, the classy dancing, and the escapism...which IS necessary. Who wants to see two hours of gloom and cynicism which ultimately falls flat on its face?
In this film, Steve Martin plays Arthur Parker, the music salesman, who is over-sexed and dominates his mousy wife played by Jessica Harper, who can't overcome him. (the infamous lip-stick nipples scene is as tasteless and cruel as ever. There have been some brutal sequences in film before, but this is just pointless. Okay, I'm done standing on my soap-box).
However, Arthur meets Eileen (Bernadette Peters, her Kewpie doll looks serving her well.) , a school teacher. He falls head over heels for her, because he believes in those songs, you know!? (Heavy-handed cannot even begin to describe this movie...)
Just to show how clever the writer (who is Dennis Potter, the original creator of the show. Hmmm...poison pen letter I presume?) and the movie makers are, they wish to end each musical fantasy, set in lavish sets and with hundreds of dancers, with emotional thuds, which renders the viewing of these scenes entirely pointless. Sure, the Astaire and Rogers musicals were light and bouncy, but they knew how to keep that story tied with those numbers.
Even then, the audiences back then knew the numbers were implausible, and that's the joy and wonder of it all.
Here, no such thing ever happens.
As Astaire, who watched this film, said, "Every scene was cheap and vulgar." I agree.
Eileen is essentially raped by Arthur (the scene is inexplicably played for cynical laughs. ???) and she is fired from her teaching job for getting pregnant (but not before she lip-syncs to LOVE IS GOOD FOR ANYTHING THAT AILS YOU, with a giant white colored set with her pupils all in white tuxedos and shorts, tapping away.)
Meanwhile, Arthur meets the "accordion man", a seemingly whimsical figure (again, a parody that turns deadly.) who lip-syncs to the title song in a shower of golden pennies in front of a giant mural of depression images in America. This actually works, sort of...except we find out that this man is a rapist and insane murder. Wha?
Perhaps the most tasteless and mind-numbing scene is where Arthur and Eileen go to the movies and watch Astaire and Rogers dance in FOLLOW THE FLEET...
(they perform the song, "Let's face the music and dance". I'm perplexed by this choice, since the number in the film was meant as a commentary on the depression, with the two characters actually contemplating suicide because of their lost earnings...is it meant to be ironic? Cloying? Suddenly sentimental? What is it meant to represent? This movie is all mixed up....)
...they suddenly imagine themselves inside the movie, instead now dancing with men in top hats and tuxedos and stuff. The number is symbolic of their "imprisonment", where the mens' canes seem to look like jail bars. This is not only heavy and not clever, but is so out of place, it even makes the lip-syncing gimmick seem elegant by comparison.
Eileen then becomes a prostitute (obviously (?)) and meets Christopher Walken who does a one scene-wonder as a charming pimp...almost. The musical number he does is amazing, but does not in any way, shape or form, make up for the rest of the film's agonizingly sloppy excesses. He taps and hoofs so well, you wonder why this film wasn't just made into a hard-luck story with retro-musical touches.
However, Walken disappears from the movie and the story reverts back to Eileen and Arthur, who has just been recently accused of the rape and murder of a blind girl whom he accidentally and innocently bumped into earlier.
Since the film has no care for its characters, plot, or anything (except for the lip-syncing gimmick, which is wasted too), I don't care if I spoil the film or anything.
Arthur is caught, wrongly accused, and hung. We don't see the hanging, but we instead see Arthur running off to Eileen under the train in Chicago. She is just as surprised as we are, but he assures her that...
"Whoever said you could stop a dream? We didn't go through all that without a happy ending. The songs ain't like that are they?"
Eileen joyfully embraces him and the film abruptly cuts to an army of chorus girls decked out in penny costumes and gold gloves, singing THE GLORY OF LOVE, bathed in gold and pink lights.
Arthur and Eileen sing to us, and the chorus girls continue to kick their heels and legs up in the air as the music hollowly reaches a climax.
It's sickening. We know that Arthur is actually dying and having this final fantasy in his head.
At the end, the contemporary audience is baffled, disappointed, but above all, insulted.
Never before has a film so utterly crumpled and died under its own weight of pretension and cynicism. There's a reason the musicals were invented. But not for this purpose.
Lars Von Trier tried the same deal with DANCER IN THE DARK. But who's kidding who? We only saw that film because Bjork actually sings and writes the songs. She is delightful. The film is not. Hmmm...the same could be said for the numbers in PENNIES FROM HEAVEN...
Take the dancing away, and you're left with waste, waste, waste...
Pauline Kael, sorry, as much as I enjoy your reviews, I can safely say that you must have been possessed by a bout of insanity to even remotely enjoy this film. (Then again, she always had odd moments of enjoyment and hate...)
*Sigh* Can no one make a retro-musical without being insincere?
Despite the luminous cinematography and set design, Herbert Ross seems to pace this film like a sack of rocks. Sometimes, getting dancers as your director is not the best idea. Everything is so ponderous; the film is literally hemorrhaging as you watch it.
Again, I go to you, Mr. Astaire,
"[...] it was just froth; it makes you cry it's so distasteful."
Willis flattens the space and creates depth. This is an amazing example of the parts being better than the whole.
If you're a fan of Dennis Potter, you may not be happy.
If you want to see where the Fatboy Slim video came from, look no further than Walken's dance number...
BTW, if you only want one reason to see this movie it's this: Christopher Walken has a brief role. And he's dancing on a bar top doing a striptease and it is probably five minutes of the best dancing in movie history. Apparently it caught Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly's eyes and wrote a letters to Walken telling him so.