New York

“Pennies From Heaven”

The supposedly poignant failure of American show biz utopias is the even more relentless theme of Herbert Ross’ critically overrated Pennies from Heaven. Less dialectical than schematic (and shticky where One from the Heart was merely sticky), Pennies from Heaven hyperbolizes the logic of the musical genre. The plot is grim Theodore Dreiser material, while the numbers are id unbridled. In Pennies from Heaven the characters not only speak in pop platitudes but think in them as well—lip-synching the lyrics (and fantasizing the production numbers) of various ’20s and ’30s chestnuts at regular intervals throughout the film. This eerie ventriloquism, the movie’s major formal trope, appeared in the BBC television series from which it was adapted and was also used—to more touching effect—in Michael Schultz’s no-prestige “ghetto musical” Car Wash.

An ambitious attempt to synthesize Depression visuals from Walker Evans to Busby Berkeley, Pennies from Heaven is bent on revealing the down side of the American dream—but it’s not even as hard boiled as 42nd Street, Murder at the Vanities, and other musicals of the period it depicts. Fussy visuals undermine the povera plot: most of the film is lit like a Batman comic book, and it grinds to a halt periodically to flash its cultural credentials in the form of an expensive-looking reconstruction of an Edward Hopper diner or a Reginald Marsh movie house. Less self-congratulatory than the mise-en-scène, the jug-eared, idiot-grinning star Steve Martin manages an Al Jolson–like mixture of understated grace and kabuki energy. But as the schoolteacher whom record-salesman Martin seduces, abandons, and rediscovers, Bernadette Peters is more of a liability. Her pushed-in Kewpie-doll face may be perfect for the film’s Helen Kane number, but her overly precious delivery fills the already ponderous dramatic scenes with a stultifying amount of dead air.

In short, Pennies from Heaven has lots of ideas but no intelligence. The performance of “Let’s Misbehave” as crooned by a gaggle of derelicts and floozies in a seedy bar barely has a chance to sprout claws and fangs before it’s subsumed as the background color for Christopher Walken’s sinewy, suspender-snapping striptease. In another botched conceit, Martin and Peters haplessly wander up in front of a movie screen showing the last number from the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers Follow the Fleet. The emotionally complex comic/pathetic image of the star-struck couple miming alongside their outsized ego-ideals turns quickly to embarrassment when Ross decides to re-stage the number with Peters tagging along a half beat behind.

The appearance of Pennies from Heaven and One from the Heart has occasioned a few predictable think pieces on “Brechtian” musicals. (Meanwhile, Robert Altman’s Popeye—the most genuinely experimental musical of the past few years—has been consigned to critical limbo.) Actually, whatever of Bertolt Brecht appears in the Ross and Coppola films seems heavily filtered through the idiosyncratic lens of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. The magic junkyard of One from the Heart and the backdrop visual quotations of Pennies from Heaven are perhaps the most unlikely legacies of Syberberg’s mad, maddening, and totally original Hitler, a Film from Germany.

J. Hoberman