Adapted by Dennis Potter from his acclaimed six-part, 1978 BBC series of the same name, film deliberately alienates viewer from the first scene, which presents an unpleasant Steve Martin attempting to force morning sex on his mousy, unhappy wife, Jessica Harper.
Martin is a sheet-music salesman in Depression-ridden Chicago of 1934 whose ‘real’ life consists of one squalid little scene after another: he makes virginal schoolteacher Bernadette Peters pregnant, after which she loses her job and becomes a streetwalker in the employ of pimp Christopher Walken.
Worked into this lugubrious, neo-Brechtian tragedy are more than a dozen musical numbers of grave opulence. Purpose is to illustrate the idealism and innocence to which Martin presumably aspires, with the vivid contrast between the sunny escapism of 1930s song lyrics and the somber dispiritedness of the era from whence they came.
Almost as if he were directing Pinter, Herbert Ross has actors speak a line, then wait two beats before delivering the next phrase. Technique smothers such ordinarily lively performers as Martin, Peters and Harper.
In short, this reportedly $19 million esoteric item is Penny Gate.
1981: Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, Sound