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Pumpkin (July 1/02)

Well, it's officially the middle of 2002 and I've already discovered the worst flick of the year. It's called Pumpkin and it makes Bad Company look like a masterpiece.

Pumpkin is one of those oh-look-how-delightfully-clever-we-are "satires" that certainly has a wide range of targets, but absolutely no idea how to create a movie with characters worth caring about or even a storyline interesting enough to follow. The film takes the broadest of targets (sorority girls, air-headed jokes) and treats them as such; the screenwriters either didn't trust the audience or didn't have enough intelligence to take anything beyond the level of caricature.In and Out, that gay comedy written by Paul Rudnick, did something similar with homosexual stereotypes, but only on a level that was beneath the surface. That film managed to skewer cliches while remaining very entertaining, something that Pumpkin never manages to do.

Christina Ricci stars as Carolyn, a idiotic blonde sorority girl who's got everything going for her - she's popular among her housemates, the most attractive guy at school is her boyfriend, and her equally moronic parents share her vacuous ideals. Her life's thrown for a loop, though, when her sorority decides to win points towards the SOY (Sorority of the Year) award by volunteering to help challenged athletes. Carolyn is partnered up with Pumpkin (Hank Harris), a mentally handicapped and socially withdrawn young man. Though Carolyn is initially repulsed by the idea of working with this person, she gradually comes to appreciate his offbeat view of the world and indeed, eventually falls in love with him - much to the consternation and disgust of everyone around her.

It's a bizarre concept for a movie but it could have worked. Had the subject matter been treated seriously and with earnest, Pumpkin just might have been a love story worth recommending. Alas, there's not a single thing in Pumpkin that warrants a recommendation. It's a pretentious mess, starting with the ultra-obvious screenplay. Clearly, the movie wants to poke fun at the Valley girl image perpetuated by flicks like Clueless and Legally Blonde, but the screenplay never moves past the level of ridiculously broad jokes and stilted characterizations. The whole movie has an air of smugness to it, as though the director and actors are moments away from actually winking at the camera - as if to say, "see, do you get it? Aren't we clever?"

Take, for instance, the developments surrounding the character of Carolyn's dimbulb boyfriend. He's initially the big man on campus - the sort envied by both sexes alike - but Carolyn's burgeoning romance with Pumpkin causes his peers to shower him with derision rather than awe. This causes him to take to the road, and after much crying and narrowly avoiding other cars, he winds up driving off a cliff - and his car explodes in mid-flight. He's not dead, though; after a short recovery, he finds himself confined to a wheelchair which turns him into a nice guy. If that stuff doesn't make you roll your eyes, you're probably the ideal audience for Pumpkin. Everything in the movie is treated with just as heavy a hand, with little regard for silly things like pacing or story or realistic character development. The filmmakers are so desperate to make their point, they abandon everything that makes movies watchable. Well, congrats; we get it, but at what expense?

Among the actors, Harris (as the titular character) is the only one to emerge from this mess unscathed. He actually manages to deliver a fairly compelling performance, one that would have been more at home in a different movie. The supporting performances range from mediocre to all-out terrible, with nary a single actor given the chance to create a realistic or believable character. Brenda Blethyn, that great British actress who was nominated for her work in the brilliant Secrets and Lies, appears as Pumpkin's clueless but well-meaning mother and suffers from the above-mentioned inability to create an interesting character. And as for Ricci, she's pretty terrible here but again, it's not her fault. She's given this awful character to work with and tries her hardest to turn it into something coherent, but it just doesn't happen.

Look, bottom line is this: I can say with very little doubt that by the end of the year, Pumpkin will top my worst of list. A more excruciating theatrical experience cannot be had at this point in time. Avoid it at all costs.

no stars out of