Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Christina Ricci, Hank Harris, Brenda Blethyn, Dominique Swain, Marisa Coughlan, Sam Ball
Directors:  Adam Larson Broder and Tony R. Abrams
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  117 Minutes
Release Date:  November 5, 2002

“I’m afraid I’m falling in love, and I don’t want to!”

“Love is not such a bad thing, is it?”

“Yes, it is.  He’s mentally retarded.”

Film ***1/2

Pumpkin is a study in contradictions.  It’s a black comedy with a heart of gold…wickedly funny with a sweetness that almost seems to undermine its humor, over the top in both style and sensitivity, and people with characters so comfortable in their shallowness that finding the least amount of depth within themselves wreaks havoc and causes undoing.

The exception to that last rule is the title character, Pumpkin (Harris), a “challenged” athlete who is introduced as both physically and mentally impaired, with one of those charming movie disabilities that’s never named nor explained.  His simplicity is easily mistaken for a kind of grand honesty and directness; because he doesn’t know how nor care to B. S., he forces those who do to instantly re-evaluate themselves.

But I should back up.  The true star of Pumpkin is Carolyn McDuffy (Ricci), a college senior and sorority staple at Alpha Omega Pi at a college where she would “be an honor student, if not for my sorority activities”.  Her interaction with her sisters is on a level so saccharine it would be part of the subplot in more brainless youth comedies.

Bent on winning the prestigious SOY (Sorority of the Year) Award, the sisters decide on a very visible act of charity:  to help coach “special” athletes to participate in the “challenged” games (the way this movie gleefully flaunts its political correctness is very anti-PC!), which some of the parents take ridiculously seriously.  That’s where Carolyn meets Pumpkin.

At first, she feels put off and awkward, and wants no part of the wheelchair bound discus thrower.  But something in his eyes starts to win her over.  She senses his pain and his good soul…or is it her own emptiness that causes her to project robust values into him?  We’re not sure, and neither is the movie.  All we know is that Carolyn begins to sense the vacuum that is her life and fall for Pumpkin, especially when the first real sentence he says to her is, “You’re beautiful inside.”

Pumpkin falls for Carolyn as well, and while she finds life at her sorority and with her cream-cheese sculpted boyfriend Kent (Ball) turning upside down, Pumpkin’s feelings for her are actually helping him become a better man.  He needs his wheelchair less and less, while his training progresses better and better.

But can a romance exist between a pert California sorority blonde and an impaired boy?  Not in society’s eyes.  At one point, her mother runs down a laundry list of races and creeds she fears her daughter’s taken up with, only to realize nothing was so bad as a retarded man.  Pumpkin’s own mother (Blethyn), who seems to regard her son more with exaggerated tolerance than with love, disapproves of the positive changes coming over him, convinced he doesn’t understand.

Like any good black comedy, this film finds humor in many things people wouldn’t normally laugh at, and they aren’t necessarily the targets you would think.  We don’t chuckle at Pumpkin’s disabilities (though the trailer adds sound effects to try and make it seem so).  We laugh at more tragic occurrences despite ourselves.  One particularly harsh one, which I will not divulge, is so deliberately telegraphed that you wait for it helplessly, and the last reaction you expect to have to the outcome is laughter.  But it comes.  The screenplay by co-director Adam Larson Broder doesn’t let anyone off easily or comfortably.

This movie constantly and entertainingly re-evaluates itself, questioning even its own motives.  It succeeds in making us laugh, moving us, and making us care about the characters.  It’s extremely sharp and decidedly daring, taking the big risks in hopes of the big payoff.  Ultimately, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more memorable last shot since Truffaut’s The 400 Blows…a simple glance that smugly pulls the rug out from under “happily ever after”.  And it’s at that point that you appreciate the true genius of Pumpkin.  Thinking back, I realized he was a character not seen nearly as much as he was talked about, thus coaxing us into forming our opinions of him based on other’s reactions instead of fact!

The cast is solid from top to bottom…I enjoyed Hank Harris’ innocent turn as the title character, and Sam Ball’s amusing resemblance to a young Cary Elwes in both physique and mannerisms.  But the real pleasure of the picture is Christina Ricci.  Watching her blossom from a terrific child star into an actress of substance and breadth has been one of the great joys of my movie critiquing career.  I think she turns in her best performance to date as Carolyn, and I can think of no other actress who would have been so suited for the role’s comic edginess.

Pumpkin is one of the best films of the year, and one of the boldest and most original comedies in some time.  In many ways, it’s this year’s Ghost World…daring, different, and comfortably on the cutting edge.

Video ***1/2

This is a solid anamorphic offering from MGM (full frame version also included).  The coloring is particularly good from start to finish, with rich, natural tones and a wide palate mixed with good levels of detail.  One or two brief long shots, particularly at the beach, are a tad softer with a little bit of texture showing up as grain, but these are extremely few and quickly passing.  High overall marks.

Audio ***

The 5.1 mix is lively, even if it barely calls the rear channels and subwoofer into play.  The music and songs are enjoyable, and dialogue is clean and clear throughout.  A few livelier moments add dynamic range, and though the back stage use is intermittent, it does come into play cleverly during a few key scenes.

Features *

Only a trailer.


Pumpkin may not be everyone’s slice of pie (no pun intended), but the adventurous mix of dark comedy and sweetness and its ability to successfully shuffle from being humorous to being moving is no small accomplishment.  Originality in cinema is hard to come by these days, and those who appreciate it will treasure this film.