ften we watch a Hou Hsiao-hsien film as if it was Jerry Bruckheimer product. Maybe The Wedding Crashers has more in common with Preston Sturges than audiences thought. Thanks to the relative ease with which the modern consumer can attain a restored older film or once out-of-print foreign film, A Second Take allows a writer to describe why a film was overrated or overlooked the first time. We do not expect our readers to agree, which is precisely the point: consensus occludes independent thinking.
Picture this scenario: Your name is Adam Larson Broder and it’s June 30, 2002. It’s a Friday morning and you open the newspaper to see what critics have to say about Pumpkin, the brilliant dark comedy that you recently wrote and co-directed. Your film has it all: an outstanding script, sly and subtle direction, flawless acting. Hell, it even has a montage sequence featuring Belle & Sebastian’s “Stars of Track & Field” that might go down as one of the most bizarrely brilliant in cinematic history. And yet despite all this going for you, here’s what critics had to say about your film.
The New York Times called it “confused and awkward.” Rolling Stone called it “an opportunity missed.” Even the Onion A.V. Club called it “a film that doesn’t know how it feels.” Naturally, some media outlets understood Pumpkin’s excellence, most notably the Washington Post and Roger Ebert, who gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars. Yet most reviews were negative and the box office results were even worse, as Broder’s film grossed a meager $300,000. Simply put, the case of Pumpkin is every director’s worst nightmare. Of course, the first question that anyone asks about the film is “why”? As in, why did a film so good end up as a critical and box office dud?
The answer probably begins with Pumpkin’s unorthodox plotline. A satire of Greek life at Southern California State University (very clearly a USC stand-in), the film tells the story of Carolyn McDuffy, an air-headed pseudo-poetic sorority girl brilliantly portrayed by Christina Ricci, who falls in love with a mentally retarded 15-year old named Pumpkin Romanoff. Using this faux love story as the jumping off point, Broder manages to lampoon everything from frat boys and sorority girls to academics to political correctness to even disabled people. Understandably, a film with such a subject matter would never appeal to the masses. Yet one would think this pitch-black satire would’ve appealed more to at least the critics of America. Not quite
To be sure, tone had a lot to do with it. Even Broder seemed unsure of his film’s meaning. Writing in the film’s press kit, Broder claimed that "people ask me to define the film, is it sentimental or satirical, a melodrama or a farce? It's all of the above." But more importantly than that, Pumpkin is flat-out hysterical from start to finish. A comedy so dark it almost makes Heathers seem vanilla by comparison, this movie stops at nothing to crack a joke, reveling in its ability to mock any target in sight.
Much of the plot conflict stems from McDuffy’s sorority, the Alpha Omega Pi’s and their quest to defeat the Tri-Omegas, who have won the much-coveted S.O.Y. (Sorority of the Year) Award, 22 years in a row. The filmmakers leave nothing behind in their efforts to lampoon both houses’ blood-lust for this seemingly meaningless award. At one point, the Tri-Omegas steal away the Alpha Omega’s “diversity pledges,” suddenly particularly desirable because “this year the Greek Council is factoring diversity into the judging process.” In another, McDuffy and the rest of the Alpha Omega’s decide to help Riverside County’s entrant in that year’s “Challenged Games,” to impress the S.O.Y. judges. This leads to McDuffy’s aforementioned liaison with Pumpkin Romanoff and the scene featuring “Stars of Track and Field.” Needless to say, the details of the scene correspond with the song: blue velour sweat-suits are worn, discuses are thrown, hilarity ensues.
But what separates Pumpkin from your run of the mill satire are the small choices that the filmmakers make to satirize their subjects. For example, rather than make Carolyn a stereotypical name-brand loving, brain-dead Jack Johnson and Dave Matthews-worshipping, sorority girl, Broder paints McDuffy as an ersatz intellectual. She fails miserably at writing poetry (penning a hilariously bad but dead-on college creative writing class poem entitled “Ode to Pasadena”), her bedroom is decorated with posters of generic museum art posters, and she constantly tries to flaunt her intellectual bona fides, even boasting at one point to her boyfriend that “she got a 1400 on the SAT and [would be] on honor roll if not for your sorority responsibilities.”
Indeed the film’s fatal flaw might be the topic itself, as it basically only appeals to people who have seen first-hand the exclusivity and absurd pomp and circumstance that play out each year in fraternities and sororities nationwide. This isn’t a film for people looking for a heart-warming tale of morality, love, and redemption. In fact, the movie itself questions its moral in the very last frame. But in many ways that’s where the charm lies here. In modern film, it’s all too rare for filmmakers to take chances and risk offending a segment of the population who might otherwise flock to their product.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the film. For the first hour, I couldn’t decide whether or not this was one of the worst films I’d ever seen or the best. As you might imagine, I eventually chose the latter. I imagine it’s this same confusion I experience that inspired so many critics to pan it. Yet four years after its initial release, Broder’s movie holds up better and better with each screening.
According to IMDB, Adam Larson Broder hasn’t made a film since Pumpkin. Hopefully the film’s lack of success didn’t cause him to question his vision and head to the nearest frat house to pump himself full of shots of Jaeger. But wherever Broder is, he shouldn’t dwell on the fact that Mr. Deeds slaughtered his film at the box office on that fateful weekend of June 30, 2002. Instead, he should take solace in the fact that he created one of the most underrated films of the decade.