Saturday, March 02, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—Pennies From Heaven (1981) **

R, 108 min.
Director: Herbert Ross
Writer: Dennis Potter
Starring: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Jessica Harper, Vernal Bagneris, John McMartin, John Karlen, Jay Garner, Eliska Krupka, Christopher Walken

“Pennies Fro Heaven” is a film that I often see written about with respectful tones, but it did not receive the respect or the box office upon its release. This is for good reason. It was a bold experiment of making a depression era musical with recordings from that era. It isn’t one of those happy go lucky MGM musicals, but one that reflects the time in which it takes place. Placing a then zany comedian like Steve Martin in the lead role and the unknown to Hollywood Bernadette Peters as his co-star was also a risky move for such an endeavor. Director Herbert Ross was the only known commodity of the bunch, coming off a string of successful dramadies, like “The Goodbye Girl” and “The Sunshine Boys”.

Even with the amazing cinematography of Gordon Willis bringing the depression-era setting of this odd love story to life, there are just too many clashing elements here for this experiment to work. Although Martin would eventually become a versatile actor, capable of much from broad slapstick comedy to surprisingly dark drama, he had yet to build up his dramatic character enough to pull off his role of a sheet music salesman who dreams of a better life where he’s not dependant on his wife’s family money. He begins a romance with a school teacher and frequently fantasizes about a life reflective of those old fashioned MGM musicals I mentioned, where happiness comes in a tux and the riches are on display in every production number.

An amazing supporting cast, including a young Christopher Walken showing off his song and dance roots in a surprising musical strip tease number, surrounds Martin. However, the story is too focused on Martin’s personal depression. It never revs up the spirit of the musical numbers that inspire it. Martin is too subdued in his role. There should be a stark contrast between his reality and his fantasies. The undynamic nature of the original recordings of the musical numbers don’t allow them to fly away in their fantasy the way new performances might. It looks good, but it’s pretty dull. That’s a shame.

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