Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is fun because it’s fun to watch Frances McDormand having fun. It’s also fun to watch Amy Adams do just about anything, which certainly doesn’t hurt. And lest you think I’m looking to damn with faint praise: the film is so flighty and featherweight that “fun” is probably the highest compliment I can pay. It’s not the cinema of the century, but it’s delicious and it melts in your mouth.
This sort of manic, cartoonish farce isn’t easy to pull off. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day runs under 90 minutes but has enough characters, settings and moods for a movie twice as long — like Adams’ Delysia LaFosse, the ditzy social climber and wannabe actress who whisks away the drab, desperate Miss Pettigrew (McDormand) for a day of high-society drama, the film can go from exuberant to wistful to frantic at the drop of a hat. But director Bharat Nalluri’s deft touch and intractable rhythm keep things fun instead of frustrating; the movie simply chugs along while an infectious jazz soundtrack keeps the beat. In a story where a lead character has one day to decide between her true love, her sugar daddy, and a rich young punk who can make her acting career, the mood swings even make a certain kind of sense.
Miss Pettigrew herself is a gale force of whimsy, the sort of convenient what-you-need-when-you-need-it character that’s usually a sign of a screenwriter who is either desperate or too clever for his own good. She starts the film in comically-hapless mode, an incompetent nanny fired by her agency after a litany of client complaints; her boss hilariously brands her “the governess of last resort” before kicking her out into the street. Immediately upon falling into Delysia’s lap, Miss Pettigrew reveals a talent for a certain type of social management — namely, making excuses for the absurdly needy socialite. By the end — some twenty-four hours after the initial firing, to take the film at its word — Miss Pettigrew is choreographing several love affairs, issuing life advice, and rekindling the fire in her own loins.
This sort of unabashed frivolity keeps the ending, which is supposed to be graceful and sweet, from having any real impact. Before then, I was more than willing to forgo my objections. Frances McDormand is a great actress who I’ve often wished would let loose a little bit, and so it’s entertaining to watch Miss Pettigrew emerge from her shell even in wildly unrealistic ways. Amy Adams is both adorable and talented, giving Delysia something beyond tireless energy and a coy giggle. And the movie, suitably manic without ever threatening to spin out of control, merrily hops from one hilarious set piece to the next.
There ought to be an audience for a film like this. Just as many people — myself included — are eager to patronize movies that skillfully blow shit up, there must be a reasonable level of demand for something like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: fast, funny, good-looking and unchallenging; cinema as candy.