March 13, 2008

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Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (PG-13)
Frances McDormand and Amy Adams waltz ever so delicately through the lighter-than-air Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a throwback to the sweet and satisfying comedies of the 1930s full of romance, misidentity, frothy dresses and big band songs.

Guinevere Pettigrew (McDormand) is something of a washout as a governess in 1930s London — not able to hold a job and quickly finding herself homeless, penniless and even change-of-clothes-less. After being turned down for another placement by her agency, she swipes the card of a prospective employer and heads to what she thinks will be another governess job at the home of Delysia Lafosse (Adams).

Turns out, however, it might be Delysia who needs the guidance. She’s a cabaret singer who, when Miss Pettigrew meets her, has just spent the night with Phil (Tom Payne), a young would-be theater producer whose father is footing the bill for a new West End play. She’s got him on the string in the hopes that he’ll cast her in the lead. With Miss Pettigrew’s help, however, she’s just able to get Phil out of her luxurious apartment before Nick (Mark Strong) arrives. He’s the owner of the apartment and the owner of the nightclub where she sings. Not long after getting rid of Nick, Michael (Lee Pace) arrives, fresh from jail, where he was sent after a drunken night wherein he planned to propose to Delysia but she never showed up. He’s the piano player at the club and the true love of her life but he doesn’t come with any material comforts or opportunities for fame, a fact that he knows will make his case harder to plead.

Luckily, Michael has Miss Pettigrew on his side. She advises Delysia that he is the only one who loves her for what she really is. Of course, Delysia, who chirps like All About Eve-era Marilyn Monroe and floats and shimmies like the Marilyn of The Seven-Year Itch, isn’t at all about who she really is — for that matter neither entirely is Miss Pettigrew. Passing herself off as a social secretary, her true identity as an out-of-work governess is in danger of being exposed by Edythe (Shirley Henderson), the haughty and ambitious salon owner who saw Miss Pettigrew standing in the soup line. Luckily for Miss Pettigrew, she also remembers Edythe from that night when, despite what Edythe told her lingerie designer fiancé Joe (Ciaran Hinds), she was canoodling with another man. Edythe tells Miss Pettigrew that she must keep her secret and help her convince Joe of her fidelity or else Edythe will reveal Miss Pettigrew’s true identity. Of course, Miss Pettigrew’s general sense of honesty (she never really lies to Delysia, or anyone really, just avoids certain aspects of the truth) would make pushing the darling Joe at the brittle Edythe difficult even if Miss Pettigrew didn’t have the warm and fluttery feelings for Joe. Which she does. Which McDormand portrays with the kind of charm that can make it occasionally very difficult to decide who really is prettier — her or Adams.

I’ve seen some stories about this movie compare Miss Pettigrew to My Man Godfrey, the 1936 charmer with William Powell and Carole Lombard. It’s an apt description. It also reminded me of a bit of Ginger Rogers/Ray Milland fluff called The Major and the Minor, a 1942 screwball comedy where war threatened and everybody gets the right partner in the end, thanks to a bit of pretending followed by truth at just the right time. War threatens here, with Miss Pettigrew and Joe sitting alone in shadow as the younger crowd runs out to a balcony to marvel and delight about bombers passing overhead. “They don’t remember the last one,” she says to him and, as so rarely happens in movie, we watch as affection deepens between two handsome yet age-appropriate characters.

Those 1930s and 1940s examples of comedy gossamer had bits of social commentary in them as well (My Man Godfrey had a little to say about class in between all the fluttering) and, like adding lemon zest to a creamy dessert, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day gets the balance absolutely right. As for the romance — well, this is the kind of heart-warmer that melts the butter on my fancy little tea cakes. When I groan at some Ryan Reynolds or Ben Stiller mess it’s because I’ve experienced the perfect delicious joy of movies like this. Even the gooey cupcake of rom-coms like the original Bridget Jones’ Diary is no match for the nearly intoxicating blend of vintage couture, handsome men with longing looks, mild but surmountable obstacles, American song book standards, actresses as fantasy perfect as a little girl’s cartoon princesses (when we play Miss Pettigrew, I want to be Frances McDormand) and absolute delight that makes Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day such a treat. A

Rated PG-13 for some partial nudity and innuendo. Directed by Bharat Nalluri and written by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy from a novel by Winifred Watson, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is an hour and 32 minutes long and distributed in limited release by Focus Features.