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Movie Review

It's polished-looking, yet dull

Frances McDormand (left) plays a social secretary to Amy Adams's American starlet in pre-Blitz London. Frances McDormand (left) plays a social secretary to Amy Adams's American starlet in pre-Blitz London. (Kerry Brown/Focus Features)
Email|Print| Text size + By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / March 7, 2008

Very early in "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day," Frances McDormand, as the title's bedraggled English governess, knocks on Amy Adams's door. And when Adams opens it, the craziest thing happens: nothing. In "Enchanted," whenever Adams batted her eyelashes, lilted and intoned her dialogue, or basically floated around Manhattan, your heart swelled.

This time, Adams isn't playing a cartoon princess in a live-action fairy tale. She's Delysia Lafosse, a randy Yankee starlet in pre-Blitz London. And even though she deploys a similar battery of saucer-eyed looks and sing-songy line readings under cover of coquettish dimness, the Amy Adams Express never leaves the station. It's not all her fault.

"Miss Pettigrew" is one of those feel-good British romances, like "Mrs. Henderson Presents," that whips nostalgia, naivete, and a little ribaldry into a sugared wartime pastry. Here is England, blithe and relatively buoyant before the bombs fall. The film is adorable and knowingly unseemly at the same time. At some point, Miss Pettigrew stares at fashionable department-store mannequins wearing gas masks and says it's horrible. "I know," Delysia replies dolorously, "capped sleeves."

The movie's only crime, though, is dullness. Directed by Bharat Nalluri and adapted by Simon Beaufoy ("The Fully Monty") and David Magee ("Finding Neverland") from Winifred Watson's 1938 novel, the movie is weightless enough to make "Enchanted" seem like a physics doctoral thesis. And yet the film fails as pure escapism. You sit wondering whether Delysia will choose a man before the air-raid sirens sound.

Guinevere Pettigrew herself is meant to be a barrier against the frivolity afoot, but the intrigue and glamour manage to suck her in. Fired from what we're meant to understand is yet another job, for doing things her way (the woman's a rogue governess), she steals the address of a prospective client from her agency. It happens to belong to Delysia, who, when she comes to the door, is in the middle of juggling a few suitors. One of them is a young theater producer who's considering her for a part in a new show and who's up in her bed. Another is on his way over. And Miss Pettigrew gamely helps direct traffic. In urgent need of work, she goes so far as to tell Delysia she used to be Carole Lombard's social secretary. Naturally, Delysia hires Pettigrew to be her own.

In either iteration, these two - McDormand and Adams; Pettigrew and Lafosse - should make quite a pair. The uptight Englishwoman and the indecorous American have more in common than they think. They're both desperate - Delysia for love and fame, Pettigrew for a permanent job. McDormand's balefulness has a glint of sad wisdom. And Adams smartly makes Delysia only half the bimbo she appears to be. Both women have some decent scenes with Ciaran Hinds as a Pettigrew suitor, Shirley Henderson as Delysia's slatternly coconspirator in superficiality, and Lee Pace as the smitten piano man in Delysia's lounge act. (Pace is vaguely more than a poor man's Clive Owen. He's Clive Owen for anybody living paycheck to paycheck.)

Even so, their services have been put to more memorable use elsewhere. This movie jams them all into the kinds of would-be sticky situations that keep a plot humming but flatten out characters. Like "The Other Boleyn Girl," the lousy costume soap opera that opened last week, "Miss Pettigrew" is long on the kind of noise and technical busyness that rarely produces rousing entertainment. That big-band score never seems to let up, so every scene sounds one long brassy note.

The material needs a director who can do more than send a camera gliding across a nightclub or down a catwalk at a lingerie show. It's a polished-looking movie, but all that pizzazz is put to monotonously shallow ends. It would take a star of steroidal proportions to jazz this movie up. If dour Miss Pettigrew does indeed live for a day, good for her. That's 24 hours longer than this movie seems to.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Directed by: Bharat Nalluri

Written by: Simon Beaufoy and David Magee from the novel byWinifred Watson

Starring: Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, Lee Pace, Shirley Henderson, and Ciaran Hinds

At: Boston Common, Fenway, Boston; suburbs

Running time: 92 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (Lots of innuendo, even more lingerie; but it all seems pretty wholesome)

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