There are a lot of ways you can tell a story (especially in film) that are very dangerous. There are even some that are extremely dangerous. Basically, you are putting yourself in a situation where there could not possibly be more ways for it to go wrong. But, if you take one of these roads and make it work, you usually end up with something special.
One of the most dangerous is to tell a story completely by use of hyperbole. I mean completely.
Those in the know will be aware that I have a special fondness for bouncy, happy-sounding songs that are about death, murder, etc. And, if we’re paying attention so far, we’ll all realize that this is because most of these songs are stories told through hyperbole. The Woman in the Wall by The Beautiful South, is not (actually) a story about a drunk who kills his wife and walls her up in the house. Though those are the words. It’s a story (and I won’t go into it really) about – life sucks, the way the world is sucks, and generally crying freedom in a whole other way. There’s your fairly obscure reference for the day. Throw it around and act hip.
Pumpkin is a story told completely through hyperbole and metaphor, and it is incredibly dangerous. You couldn’t find a way to put more ‘this movie isn’t for everyone’ into a single film. It usually takes three or four movies put together to be aiming at less people.
Pumpkin (Hank Harris) is a pretty simple guy really. He’s something of a non-traditional hero, and has his share of problems. He hasn’t (somewhere in his mid-ish to late-ish teens) really found any direction in his life yet. His mother, upon the death of her husband, coddles Pumpkin a little too closely, setting him up for a pretty heavy dose of lack of self-esteem. He is particularly shy around beautiful women, and he isn’t the most coordinated guy you ever met.
Then one day, Pumpkin meets Carolyn McDuffy (Christina Ricci) and falls instantly in love with her. Once smitten, our young lad finds a purpose. He struggles valiantly against life and whatever problems it may throw at him in the pursuit of not only ‘making himself worthy’, but also of simply making himself better, and even more simply, just making himself.
Sounds just like your typical, movie-version everyman, doesn’t it? Of course it does. That’s exactly who he is. But, if you’re telling the story through hyperbole, then Pumpkin naturally becomes a ‘special’ young lad, instead of just a special young lad.
In a normal movie, Carolyn McDuffy would be played by Jennifer Connelly, and would be the somehow amazingly beautiful everywoman, that is out of Pumpkin’s reach for at least a few good reasons, but only slightly out of reach. The movie will get him up on his tiptoes, or lend him a step-stool, or whatever is required.
In this movie, Carolyn is not only a sorority sister, she is the cheeriest of the cheery. She is also from a smashingly rich family, is dating the all-time biggest of the BMOCs, and gets the willies at the thought of ‘special needs’ people to boot.
And so the story goes on. Carolyn, living in the world where she is actually confused when people talk about pain and sorrow, and wonders why everything can’t be beautiful, finds to her dismay that Pumpkin is having some sort of effect on her. She responds much as she would to any other sort of rash or similar, but this one is ‘doing things’ to her life, and she is greatly perturbed.
Carolyn slowly allows herself to succumb. And why does she succumb? Because the everyman has a certain charm of sincerity, and Carolyn lives in a world that is like a sincerity black hole. He is the only person in her life that has ever really looked at her, and the only one that truly cared that she exists. You should be familiar with it, it’s the same in all the everyman movies. It’s the same reason the guy gets the girl in your standard movie (and hopefully it’s the actual reason the guy gets the girl… you know, in life), this is just the bigger than big version, or in the case of this aspect of the movie, you might say more simple than simple.
We follow along as all the standard issue things happen to Carolyn and Pumpkin, they just happen bigger, more, and/or less realistically. The scene were Carolyn is shunned for her expeditions into unworthy lands, is an extravagant-ish sorority ritual. The scene where Pumpkin confronts his mother (or the world) and asserts that he is a man, has him climbing to the top of a ladder and perching himself (on top) and refusing to be moved. The scene where Carolyn’s father gives her a lecture on his disapproval is a five-second shot where he walks in the room, looks down at the floor (sort of ‘at her’), and walks out. The scene where Carolyn, in what is nothing more than a bid for attention, attempts to kill herself in such a way that she will have to be found and saved, is a scene where she (in incredibly dramatic fashion) empties the medicine cabinet, eats some pills, some contact lens solution, washes it down with a bottle of Pepto, promptly throws up, and crawls into bed. We’ve skipped the middle-man.
The climax isn’t, the characters aren’t, and at the (magnificent) end Carolyn asks Pumpkin a question that he doesn’t understand, possibly leading her toward the idea that the whole thing was merely a matter of projection all along, and she looks back (at you) as if suddenly stricken by the most intense doubt.
And the extreme danger is that this all probably sounds (and hyperbole almost is by definition) pretty stupid. That’s probably going to be open for debate for a long time (assuming anyone ever sees the thing).
As for me, I found it very moving. It’s a tricky way to go, but it has a great many advantages. As Carolyn says when her ‘fight the system’ poetry teacher starts talking about the rules that must be conformed to, “it’s all a bunch of bullshit”. By going the road of hyperbole, and never letting go, you walk a fine line between brilliance and stupidity, but you cut out all the bullshit either way. You leave the warm, and fuzzy bunnies to someone else, and you just say “this is what sucks”, and “this is how things should be instead”, and have done.
If nothing else, Pumpkin is a movie that dares, and a movie that tries like mad. Whatever faults the movie might have (and whatever faults Pumpkin himself may have) they aren’t for lack of trying. It’s a comedy so black Prizzi’s Honor looks over and says, “Ummm… psst…ixnay on the ackblay”, and yet it is somehow a bit light and easy. It also leaves no stone unturned. From the fact that Carolyn is the only blonde in the brunette sorority whose competition is the blonde sorority, to the car that blows up almost before it goes over the cliff (nevermind before there is any reason it would blow up… if cars blew up) resulting in the driver of that car looking like he just stepped out of a toothpaste commercial. From the manhood wisecrack where the guy actually peeks, to the poetry professor going down to one knee when Carolyn leaves school.
The acting is incredible all the way around. You can’t have characters this far beyond stereotype without some pretty decent acting. At times it even makes you smile. The often stageplay version of acting rearing its head, where people smile bigger than a person can humanly smile, movements are larger than life, and you can hardly bare to call it acting, in some sense, because its really just “making it so people in the back row can see what I’m doing”.
Pumpkin takes issues (discrimination, elitism, love, and I suppose ‘rich people suck’) apart, filets them, works them over with a tenderizing mallet, chops them up into tiny pieces, and then just leaves them sit there, and walks away. And, isn’t that how it should be? Or am I just…
Are You Screening?
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