Screwball comedies are a dying art. Aside from the Coen Brothers’ occasional modernist foray into the genre (Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou?), a good modern example of the classic formula is hard to come by. Any stab at the genre had better include zany plot twists, mistaken identities, machinegun dialogue, double entendres and, of course, the romance.
The tried-and-true genre is usually best left in its heyday — the 1930s and ’40s — and if anyone other than cinematic masters even attempt to transplant the glory of films such as It Happened One Night or Some Like It Hot to today’s silver screen, the results will probably go one of two ways, one of which ends with movies like Gigli. Ouch.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a film that thankfully gets it right. It sidesteps the crudeness and/or melodrama of its modern-day relatives, going for the classic feel of those ’30s movies and the screwy delight of old-school Hollywood. How? It fashions itself as a period piece. Set in London on the eve of World War II, Miss Pettigrew’s characters speak with rich Art Deco color. No joke explicitly stated when it can be implied with a cough or traces of a smile.
Oscar winner Frances McDormand (Fargo) plays the titular character, a luckless governess freshly returning to the unemployment office, where a track record of apparent incompetence has left her blacklisted. In a moment of desperation, she swipes the address of Delysia Lafosse, a beautiful young American actress/singer on the verge of stardom (Amy Adams from Enchanted).
Miss Pettigrew arrives at Delysia’s door expecting to become the strict governess of Delysia’s children, but through a classic, elemental twist, she finds that Delysia is the one in need of governance. Delysia is a handful, an opportunistic starlet who can’t say “No,” juggling three simultaneous relationships which lead to various antics. Miss Pettigrew soon finds herself intertwined in the love lives of many others, including her own, and everyone expects her to rectify all their problems.
What ensues is a shimmering and frequently hilarious romp of a movie. McDormand is lovably sharp, nailing the expressions of someone trapped in scenarios beyond her social stature, all with a perfect British accent. Amy Adams adds the remaining elements of energy and warmth needed to elevate the picture to one of considerable charm.
Director Bharat Nalluri captures the period perfectly, and is quick enough to follow the insanity his performers around every glitzy locale, spread across a lingerie show, a shopping spree, a banquet, and a cocktail party (complete with fistfight!), while bombers intermittently rumble overhead.
His best scene: the slow-spinning camera focused on Delysia as she sings a heartfelt number on a revolving stage at the story’s climax.
Many have criticized the movie for being too “light,” as if that makes it inconsequential. That claim is false, for one, and Pettigrew provides a new view of days long gone. Miss Pettigrew’s particular day captures a time in between World Wars, when the young were too young to remember the atrocities of the last — and the obvious parallels to recent history can be drawn pretty easily. Her hope in true love and insistence on seizing the day are what bring the movie to life and to fruition, and we all learn from it.