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Overall Rating

Awesome: 13.33%
Worth A Look: 13.33%
Average: 0%
Pretty Bad73.33%
Total Crap: 0%

1 review, 9 user ratings

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Pennies from Heaven
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by dionwr

"How not to make a good movie"
2 stars

This is NOT the film you want to see. This is NOT a film anyone would want to see. It exists only as a study, to demonstrate how NOT to make a good film when starting with good material. Nothing to see here! Move along! Move along!

Interested in a good film? Look here:

But if you want to know about the Steve Martin version of Pennies From Heaven, you have come to the right place.

This was an admirable and ambitious attempt to remake Dennis Potter's superb BBC mini-series, which contrasted the daily life of a dreamer in 1935 with his dreams, through the means of the songs of that era. In counterpoint to the story of Arthur's life, the characters break out into dream-sequence musical numbers, lip-synching to old recordings.

The problem with the Steve Martin version is Steve Martin. The role of Arthur needs an actor who can disappear into the character. The viewer must be drawn in to Arthur, not thinking about whoever's playing him. Bob Hoskins was brilliant in the part. Steve Martin, at that early stage of his career, never makes you forget that he's Steve Martin, and it is the fatal flaw of the film. Trained in skits, he is alternately wooden or overacting. The key character the viewer must care about never comes to life.

There are many who claimed the film failed because it needed the extra time the mini-series had to develop the characters enough so that the viewer would care for them. Certainly, Arthur's wife, Joan (Jessica Harper), comes across as a rather unpleasant character, since her part has been denuded of everything that would make you see her side of things.

But that is clearly not the whole case, because some scenes in the movie work; and when they do, they're wonderful. Christopher Walken was justly praised for one short scene as a pimp, where the counterpoint to his realistic portrayal as a tough-as-nails bastard, was a soft-shoe, raunchy striptease set to "Let's Misbehave." It's probably the single most remembered scene in the film.

Lacking the huge resources of the Hollywood production, the musical numbers in the original BBC version were much lower-key. Basically, folks would jump into their numbers and out again, with no changes of sets or costume. The Hollywood version, of course, amped it up considerably and threw a ton of money at it, with huge Busby Berkeley musical numbers, costumes, sets, and thousands of dancing extras. The gritty interior of a diner suddenly slides away to become a huge, glittering soundstage, a bank morphs into a cheerily retro movie set, and you go back and forth from Real World to Movie Musical World at the drop of a hat. The contrast between the realistic slice-of-life drama and the musical numbers was therefore greater, and a case can be made that ejection of the original's simplicity hurt it, that the contrast was too disconcerting, that it broke the mood too much.

One sign that might be so is that most of the numbers that work tend to be the ones most simply done. There's a small scene of Arthur and his wife, Joan (Jessica Harper), where Joan goes into a song for half a minute, with a knife, that shows just how angry she is at Arthur. It's done with the same sort of simplicity that the mini-series had, and it works--it's funny, involving, and shows what Joan is thinking. And then Martin starts talking again, and the bubble bursts, and the movie stops working again.

But the real problem with the bigger numbers lies elsewhere. If you're going to do musical numbers in the classic, highly polished Hollywood way, your stars have to be able to look as perfect dancing as Fred Astaire, or it looks wrong. Walken, to everyone's surprise, could do that; it turned out he'd had a lifetime of dance lessons. Steve Martin could not. Martin looks uncomfortable in the dance sequences, and you can clearly see the effort he's making to pull it off. But to dance like Fred Astaire, it MUST look effortless.

The two examples that show this are Walken's number, where he proves a great dancer, and the title number, which is done by an old hoofer, Vernel Bagneris. Those two scenes are the best things in the film, and give a sense of what might have been, of how it might have looked if it had all worked.

As a sidenote, Vernel Bagneris is still around and still dancing. He did the choreography for Ray, and played Dancin' Al in that film.

Bernadette Peters doesn't look as uncomfortable as Martin in the musical numbers, but she doesn't convey any strong sense of her character, either. It hurts that all her key scenes are with Martin, and so all their scenes together are a wash. Jessica Harper has the same problem with all her scenes with Martin.

I admire Steve Martin for attempting this, but the sad truth is he didn't have the chops for it.

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originally posted: 02/15/05 18:34:31
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User Comments

9/16/09 With these commodity' specific calculations, we then construct country'wide indices. , <a h 5 stars
9/15/09 eNrtHFPJ doors.txt;10;15 4 stars
9/14/09 If you decide to do a virtual event, you have to confirm that your audience is computer lit 2 stars
2/26/05 Joy Venters not one I want to see again 2 stars
2/22/05 Debora Browning Love Steve Martin but not this movie 2 stars
2/19/05 Diane Stahlman NOT MY TCUP OF TEA 2 stars
9/13/03 Michael Browne The most brilliant and original and beautiful musical film ever made. It must be seen 5 stars
4/13/03 Charles Tatum A chore 2 stars
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  11-Dec-1981 (R)
  DVD: 27-Jul-2004



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