Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008, dir. Bharat Nalluri) feels like a throwaway stage play adapted without much change for the screen. In fact, it’s based on a novel, not a play, but it feels like a play. It’s about a governess, Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand), who has had a long series of unsuccessful appointments and secretary or head housekeeper. She is apparently rigid, stubborn, and puritanical enough that employer after employer finds her unacceptable. After her most recent employer throws her out, her employment agency decides to have nothing more to do with her and tells her to go away. She overhears a conversation about an available position and surreptitiously picks up the address card and goes to the address. There she meets a young woman, Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) living the high life, sleeping with three different men, casting about for her best option in life. She is a nightclub owner’s mistress, she is sleeping with a young producer in hopes that she will get a part in his play, and she sings with a pianist who loves her and has proposed. This is exactly the kind of woman Miss Pettigrew is most unsuited to work for, but she is desperate. She somehow finds herself working for the woman as a personal secretary. She comes to like her. The film follows the developing situation. Miss Pettigrew gradually relaxes and lightens up. She buys new clothes and suddenly looks attractive. She meets a man, a fashion designer, her own age, and he’s interested in her. She helps Delysia make some important decisions.
The whole situation is improbable. In one day Miss Pettigrew goes from being a homeless person sleeping on the bench in the train station to living the high life and accepting a marriage proposal. Her change in character is the most unlikely aspect of the film for me. I do not doubt that a person can change attitudes, personality, lifestyle, but such transformations usually take place within a longer span of time than 24 hours.
Amy Adams is an attractive, vivacious actress whose fresh appearance and ebullient personality have made her a rising star. In such films as Junebug (2005), Doubt (2008), and Enchanted (2007) she has proven the depth and range of her talents. In this film she is playing a kind of cartoon stick figure, a flighty, disorganized, wholly amoral flapper (though the film is set in the Depression, right before World War II begins) who feels no compunction about using sex to get what she wants. But her mission is survival—she has no wealth of her own, and without the men she relies on and tries to exploit (and who exploit her), she would be out on the streets with people like Miss Pettigrew. Adams is as good in the role as it allows her to be, which means that she mainly has to simper and flirt and cavort and look confused. This is not one of her better roles.
Frances McDormand is a wonderful actress. This is an odd role for her, but she plays it well enough. She knows woebegone.
This film is entertaining, but you know from the start how it all will go. I didn’t like the film. It seemed half-hearted, from the obvious use of sets to the shallow characterizations to the trite and hackneyed script. Most of all it seemed pointless and insulting. Why sympathize with insipid souls like Delysia Lafosse or the three men who pursue her? The problems of these people seem wholly at odds with the environment of depression and war that looms menacingly in the background of the film. There are numerous mindless, empty, vacuous films coming out every month. Why do they get made? Who bothers to watch them? Who cares about or remembers them?