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  Pumpkin Special Needs
Year: 2002
Director: Adam Larson Broder, Tony R. Abrams
Stars: Christina Ricci, Hank Harris, Brenda Blethyn, Dominique Swain, Marisa Coughlan, Sam Ball, Harry J. Lennix, Nina Foch, Caroline Aaron, Lisa Banes, Julio Oscar Mechoso, Melissa McCarthy
Genre: Comedy, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Carolyn McDuffy (Christina Ricci) is an upper class student at the University of Southern California whose sorority house has a rivalry with with the more popular one across the road. To help Carolyn's house win the best sorority prize, leader Julie (Marisa Coughlan) decides to turn to charitable acts, and gets the girls involved with training the local entrants in the "Challenged Games", where mentally disabled young men compete. Carolyn and her roommate Jeanine (Dominique Swain) are extremely reluctant, and once they meet up with the team they are supposed to be helping, Jeanine runs away in horror, but the initially sceptical Carolyn finds herself strangely drawn to her charge, whose nickname is Pumpkin (Hank Harris). Then the trouble begins.

Romantic comedies don't get much more deliberately uncomfortable than this one, written by co-director Adam Larson Broder, which goes to great lengths to confront prejudices about the mentally disabled, but with laughs. Misguided it may be, but it seems sincere, at least for the first half where the relationship between Pumpkin and Carolyn blossoms into romance. Everyone around the couple reacts with shock, anger or worse, leading to Carolyn's previously perfect existence as a popular girl being threatened. When she tries to talk to her snobbish, politely racist mother (Lisa Banes) about her troubles, she observes that life isn't as easy as she thought it was, to which her mother replies, "Aw, honey - yes it is!"

But it's not when you don't conform to your place in life, as Carolyn finds out. In Ricci's well-judged performance, naive but not entirely oversweet, the character causes havoc when the romance goes too far. Her sorority becomes a laughing stock and her tennis champ boyfriend Kent (Sam Ball) struggles to understand why she's not feeling the same way about him. Carolyn's eyes have been opened to a different side of life, and everybody is rejecting her because of it.

Early on, Carolyn sets up a double date with herself, Kent, and Pumpkin and socially awkward fat girl Cici (Melissa McCarthy) who she's befriended, not comprehending that Cici might be less than keen on having Pumpkin for a boyfriend. There is prejudice at every level, but it's Carolyn who's ostracised when her romance becomes public after it is consummated. Pumpkin's mother (Brenda Blethyn) is horrified when she finds the couple in bed together, and Carolyn is banned from seeing him. Cue a nervous breakdown from Carolyn, as the story's previously sunny, kitschy-sixties colours turn darker.

At some point during this film, after you've accepted that it's healthy to have your preconceptions tested in such a forthright manner, you begin to wonder just how much guilt can be piled onto Carolyn. The comedy grows more and more melodramatic, almost straight-faced camp, as disasters occur. Pumpkin, as played by Harris, is a kindly, simple soul, but doesn't really bear the weight the story puts on him, and there's a big problem, too: the film isn't all that funny. Obviously they couldn't resort to Pumpkin being the victim of cruel slapstick or generally made fun of, so the other characters are put through hell instead, as if punished for their prejudices. A strange experience, and not altogether successful, but it is different. What's the meaning of the last shot, though? Music by John Ottman.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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