Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day stays in your memory like soda bubbles on your lip because it’s just as fizzy, confectionary, and neutral to your health. It’s the most “nothing movie,” as Billy Wilder said of The Seven Year Itch, but today that reminds me so achingly of the frivolous oldies that I can’t help but swoon. The 1940s deserve Frances McDormand to tousle her bun beside Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart. Here beside her instead we have bubbly Amy Adams, chameleonic in her ability to assume and drop dispositions. We have righteous Lee Pace on the piano. We have Bharat Nalluri at the lens, whose greatest claim prior to this was the direct-to-video third The Crow film, homey as a house fire. Somehow, together they are chemical. The comedy is shrewd. The romance is playacted so subtly that you might miss it coming until you’re sharing its shoes. Like the best houseguests, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day doesn’t try too hard, do too much, or overstay its welcome. You’ll be sorry to see it leave.

It starts as an empathy tale that seems to turn to comedy in twelve minutes, as Miss Guinevere Pettigrew (McDormand) loses her housekeeping job and gets cold-shouldered by the agency to find her another one. Wandering the depression-era streets, she hits a third act low in the first act, but then bucks up and steals a new job. No matter how zany it gets, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day always has this first twelve minutes in mind, but for now I’ll let myself get distracted, as you will, by the twirl of its skirt. Miss Pettigrew waltzes into Delysia’s (Adams) swanky high-rise apartment, which seems always adorned for a party starring Cole Porter, and proves her usefulness immediately by dressing, feeding, and turning out a lover boy called Phil (Tom Payne) in time to welcome legit boyfriend Nick (Mark Strong), who not only looks like he belongs to the mob but also, we discover, owns the apartment. A third suitor named Michael (Pace) will arrive later. In unraveling Delysia’s sexy yarn-ball of beaus, all of whom she treats like her personal doormen, will Pettigrew, who has legs so often hidden we assume they’re unshaven, find love too?

McDormand’s clever rigmarole is positively of the P.G. Wodehouse school of fine trickery. That ineffable butler chum Jeeves at last has a corollary in a woman, in demure but unflappable Miss Pettigrew. Every understated turn of brow reminds me why the Coen Brothers favor her for roles that require strictly serious humor, with a total deadpan lack of comedy, as in Fargo and even Burn After Reading. Her transformation into a kind of motherly glow over the cast of Miss Pettigrew, a reserved and decorative beauty among the younger trinkets, dazzles the imagination.

Even nude and giggly, Adams compliments her perfectly. Even still rosy from her romp with any of three boy-toys, her bathing beauty physique hides such a lovelorn past that she occasionally feels of a kind with her frumpy housemaid, who refuses to recall for the public record when it was that she herself was last in love. From dainty toe to curly top, Adams could have played the show for a lark but doesn’t, and that’s where Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day exceeds even the 50s nothings it seems to so admire. Adams’ flair (which alone might be fragile and tasteless) turns to desperation, a change so dramatic that the entire decade almost turns tits up, as the Brits say. In the tail end of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, perhaps the most bombastic nothing picture in all the movies, Marilyn Monroe said, “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.” Adams seems at first like the least flattering portrayal of women who sleep with men, but eventually she is like the feature-length version of that quote.

There’s little doubt that Michael is the true love, but will Delysia realize it? This is not a love triangle (love rhomboid?) movie, because there’s no Philadelphia Story spark, no controlled reaction between love units. This is about a coupla girls overcoming a decade, while glorifying it, a plot that involves more dressing up Miss Pettigrew and dressing down Delysia than it does explaining them. And the sheer locomotion will get everyone to the same lounge party by the end, like all this lovely candy streamer ephemera depends on one last night of drinking and swinging before the bombs come down. “If I Didn’t Care” headlines, and 2008 gets real nostalgic all of a sudden, to drop the latent isms of The Ink Spots and sing a lost decade in its essence, to its bones, all raw and lyrical and tart in the middle.

And who could doubt, even not knowing that her first name is Guinevere, that Miss Pettigrew is the film's true paramour? But in a sweeping bit of loveliness, the film doesn't so much pry frowsy Pettigrew out of herself as rearrange the world so that it threatens to deserve her. She is not of a piece with her world, as McDormand was in Fargo, but the world is working on it.

I know where Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day comes from, about as well as the persons inhabiting it know the same of Pettigrew herself. It could be from Portobello Road, from the East Winds, and it could be from the nannies-for-hire agency down the street. What’s clearer is how welcome she is among the sundry frauds of the genre coming over to my house, staying too long, and darkening my towels, to quote a Marx bit (Twilight came out the same year as Miss Pettigrew). I can’t remember one time Miss Pettigrew actually smiled in her own film, but her cheeriness was so astute that without thinking about it I would have said the film was all champagne and nosegays. Then it gets smart when it wants to be, and I realize that the person smiling is actually me. I thought only Monroe could do that to me, but I’ve rarely been more willing to be proven wrong.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film. 

Cast & Crew

Bharat Nalluri

David Magee

Simon Beaufoy

Winifred Watson (book by)

Guinevere Pettigrew Frances McDormand
Delysia Lafosse Amy Adams
Michael Pardue Lee Pace
Phil Goldman Tom Payne
Nick Calderelli Mark Strong
Edythe Dubarry Shirley Henderson
Joe Blomfield Ciaran Hinds

Official Trailer

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