Cruel Intentions


A grim fairy tale of taboo love between a sorority girl and a “challenged athlete,” Pumpkin uncannily echoes Todd Solondz’s Storytelling in its incorrect deployment of disability, conflicted indictment of misery fetishism (illustrated once again with the help of a stern African American creative-writing instructor), and discordant soundtrack use of kindly Glasgow troubadours Belle and Sebastian. The stars of track and field who descend on a SoCal campus as Alpha Omega Pi’s charity du jour are indeed “beautiful people,” not least gangly discus thrower Pumpkin (Hank Harris), who has an unspecified handicap (he’s wheelchair-bound and speaks haltingly) and a boozy, overbearing mother (Brenda Blethyn). WASP princess Carolyn (a miscast Christina Ricci, gamely channeling Alicia Silverstone’s officious cluelessness and legally blonde Reese Witherspoon) is first traumatized by the spectacle of other people’s suffering, an unthinkable trespass into her immaculate existence. Soon, though, she finds her doe-eyed charge to be not only “wounded” but “pure”—and, by extension, kind of hot.

At least Solondz’s savagery is concentrated and resolute. Given its proudly inflammatory content, Pumpkin can’t afford to lack a point of view, but—as brought to you by the minds behind Dead Man on Campus—this post-p.c. comedy is rather less than the sum of its inconsistent daredevil postures. Co-directors Adam Larson Broder and Tony R. Abrams satirize the condescension that chokes media depictions of the disabled, except when it’s more convenient to indulge in those same suspect clichés. (The Farrellys, who portray the physically and mentally impaired as self-serving bastards like the rest of us, remain the funniest and most benevolent equal-op employers.)

Pumpkin‘s premise harbors a psychological insight or two about how a certain kind of privileged mind-set can come to confuse pity with compassion, and how this humanitarian zeal might even slip into erotic objectification. But for the most part, the movie obfuscates madly. The central romance relies on chemistry by default, positioning the odd couple as lone beacons of decency within an ocean of grotesquerie: Carolyn’s tennis-star beau is a dunderheaded mannequin, while her sorority Stepford sisters disown her when they learn of her transgressive tryst.

Having taken aim at fish in a barrel for much of the duration (Greek-system cruelty, suburban hypocrisy), Pumpkin finally turns its limited ammunition on itself. The filmmakers’ increasingly disingenuous attempts to “normalize” their titular hero involve deeply dubious parallels (“Pumpkin’s not sitting at the back of the bus anymore!”), semi-miraculous recoveries (“I’m . . . not . . . retarded,” the kid announces, hauling himself atop the monkey bars in his backyard), and a staggeringly misguided bid to level the playing field for Carolyn’s romantic rivals. In its own dimly reckless way, the film is riveting—not unlike watching a tightrope walker with a bad case of vertigo.

Seattle indie stalwart Gregg Lachow gets his first New York retro this week at the Pioneer (through July 2)—a four-film series anchored by 1999’s Money Buys Happiness, a deadpan-madcap doodle about thirtysomething spiritual malaise. Having inherited a piano through a chain of events too convoluted to recount, newly Sabbath-observant Money (Jeff Weatherford) and his fretful wife, Georgia (Megan Murphy, suggesting Mia Farrow as a silent-movie star), decide to move it across town themselves, the unmanageable bulk of their acquisition embodying the oppressive weight of a moribund marriage. Shot with minimal visual flair (all counter-intuitive compositions and haphazard lunges), Money enlivens the stubbornly manneristic trek with magic-realist flourishes, but the flurry of undermotivated quirks is enervating. Lachow’s home fans tout his experimental bent (2000’s Silence! combines theater, enlisting live actors to front a projected image), but this film, at best, plays like an attenuated Seinfeld episode.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 25, 2002

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