If there's any truth to reincarnation, the spirit of Napoleon may walk among us today. It's not unreasonable to conjecture that he has taken up residence in Bill Gates or Joel Silver, but -- perhaps more likely -- the little conqueror with the big hat has fragmented and landed in the bodies of countless sorority sisters. At least this is how the wickedly funny Pumpkin makes it seem, with the snotty university Greek system representing a seething territory of divide-and-conquer campaigns.
Our focal point -- and subtly tyrannical empress -- is Carolyn (Christina Ricci), a hermetically sealed product of SoCal country club spoilage who couldn't find her reality with both hands. According to her sorority president, Julie (Marisa Coughlan), the bottle-blond senior is the "most enthusiastic sister" of her largely brunette Alpha Omega Pi house, which struggles against the tall, blond "mastodons" of the Tri-Omegas -- somebody please shout, "Everybody else has!" -- directly across the Row. With her codependent Ken doll, Kent (Samuel Ball), and soullessly chummy roomie, Jeanine (Dominique Swain), the glittering Carolyn is poised to lead her house to ultimate victory in the S.O.Y., or Sorority of the Year competition.
Not long ago this sort of setup would have led to breasts slapping around all over the place -- H.O.T.S., anybody? -- but under the auspices of Ricci as coproducer and Francis Ford Coppola as a co-exec, writer-director Adam Larson Broder and codirector Tony Abrams have chosen to go revisionist. Way revisionist. While the Tri-O's are giggling and jiggling for "safe sex in public schools," the AO's choose as their charity -- with some initial dissent from Carolyn and Jeanine -- the Challenged Games. This quickly translates to a small caravan of short buses delivering a load of "special" athletes to the posh campus, that the sisters may attend them in training. (Un)naturally, this cockeyed cotillion becomes the breeding ground for alarming geek love.
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The crux of Pumpkin -- and of Carolyn's extremely gradual acceptance of life beyond princesshood -- is its eponymous, retarded hero (Hank Harris). While Jeanine flees in horror from her hopeful charge (Michael Bacall), Carolyn attempts to cope ("Does mine have a real name? 'Cause I can't call somebody Pumpkin!") and quickly finds herself terrified, fascinated, and stricken with wrenching denial. Pumpkin is all affection with no affectation, and she reticently swoons for his cuddly company -- or, perhaps without realizing it, for his fatherless wistfulness. Whatever the case, her perfect life rapidly falls to ruin, with Broder and Abrams adroitly framing every tacky nuance, creating a worthy successor to the dark, dry dementia of Heathers.
As an actress Ricci has shown tremendous range thus far, extending from crowd pleasers (Casper, The Addams Family) to artier faves (The Opposite of Sex, Buffalo 66) to the Great In-Between (The Ice Storm, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Sleepy Hollow). Although she's something of an acquired taste -- extra saucy -- her diverse pathways have come to a fully engaging junction in Carolyn, whom she delivers with deceptively simple flair. It's her best work yet, this girl-woman who sincerely believes she can thwart the world's misery with blind goodwill. Her battles for happy harmony are hilarious -- the double-date with the woefully chunky but not particularly retarded friend (Melissa McCarthy) is a huge hoot -- but it's Carolyn's expression at the movie's end that signals Ricci's chilling gift; it's a flying double-axel with an elegant landing, a nine-plus.
We've had plenty of entries in the glamorous Cinéma du Rétard and its subgroups -- Rain Man, Molly, I Am Sam, yadda-yadda -- but Pumpkin really is special. Not only does it know its touchy territory -- Carolyn and her Storytelling-like black poetry teacher (Harry Lennix) lambaste each other and shred her pretentious poem, "Ode to Pasadena" -- it exploits retardation neither for laughs nor tears. Rather the device is just an easy gloss on the immortal tale of the apparent loser and the covetable princess. Only take note: For all its brilliantly brazen sequences and energetic supporting players (as the young lovers' mothers, Brenda Blethyn and Lisa Banes are terrific), Pumpkin's abrupt shifts of mood and needlessly complicated ending(s) render its latter third a bit of a chore.
Still it's worth the haul to watch Ricci's great dictator confused, humbled, wooed, and confused again by her challenged and challenging squeeze. As with the fall of any tyrant, we're left to wonder if her grand designs were obliterated for the betterment of all.