The story of a "forbidden" romance between a sorority sister and a handicapped young man, "Pumpkin" begins as though the filmmakers imagine that they're making a daringly anti-p.c. serio-comedy, but long before it's over, the picture is wearing its bleeding liberal heart all over its sleeve.

The story of a “forbidden” romance between a sorority sister and a handicapped young man, “Pumpkin” begins as though the filmmakers imagine that they’re making a daringly anti-p.c. serio-comedy, but long before it’s over, the picture is wearing its bleeding liberal heart all over its sleeve. Conceptually a sort of “Harold and Maude” with a mentally and physically challenged kid rather than an old lady repping the taboo object of desire, this American Zoetrope production gets along on curiosity value for a while, but becomes increasingly unconvincing and ludicrous as it staggers endlessly toward the finish line. Impressionable girls and connoisseurs of bizarre-lite represent parallel target audiences for this United Artists offering, which should find more viewers down the line on video than in theaters.

A problem of tone afflicts “Pumpkin” from the outset, as first-time directors Adam Larson Broder and Tony R. Abrams, working from the former’s script, try to warm the audience up to blond Southern California State senior Carolyn McDuffy (Christina Ricci) while also making fun of the conventions at her Alpha Omega Pi sorority. Determined to beat out the neighboring Tri Omegas for sorority of the year honors, the girls hope to better their chances through their choice of a charity activity — coaching some “special” athletes from Riverside in the upcoming Challenged Games.

Confronted with their charges’ seemingly hopeless disabilities, Little Miss Perfect Carolyn and her grossed out roommate Jeanine (Dominique Swain) are seriously unnerved by the whole deal. Carolyn is about to quit when she senses the profound vulnerability of the young man she’s teaching. Pumpkin Romanoff (Hank Harris) is a lanky kid who’s largely confined to a wheelchair and has notions of competing in the shot-put, which he can barely heave five feet. He’s also instantly smitten with Carolyn, which inspires him to pursue a rigorous workout regime to the amazement of his mother (Brenda Blethyn).

A questionable amount of time is devoted to detailing the frantic activities at the sororities, the girls’ efforts to recruit the best new members (“diversity girls” are much in demand) and Carolyn’s wildly misguided attempt to organize a double date with her superjock b.f. Kent (Sam Ball) and Pumpkin and a fat friend (Melissa McCarthy), who is properly appalled when she discovers who Carolyn thinks is suitable for her.

Eventually, however, Carolyn has to confront the truth: She’s falling in love with Pumpkin. In short order, she drives Kent into a fury; the sorority exiles her; Pumpkin’s enraged mother calls her a slut and a pedophile; and a school therapist (Julio Oscar Mechoso, excellent in his short scene) tells her, “You are letting your compassion take over.” In essence, she becomes a wreck, unable to be sure of her feelings or what she should do about them.

The problem with all of this is that there is absolutely no evidence in the interchanges between Carolyn and Pumpkin of why their relationship has such a volcanic effect on her. She keeps raving about his “beautiful soul,” about how “he understands me,” and so on, but there’s nothing onscreen to support this. Pumpkin remains either mute or uncommunicative most of the time and never says anything interesting or insightful; he is frankly a bland, colorless kid with no defining characteristics beyond his disabilities. There is not one single meaningful dialogue scene between the putative lovers, and Pumpkin would seem to have absolutely nothing to offer his female admirer.

The more Carolyn throws over her prior life, including her studly steady and her entire college career, the more preposterous the whole thing becomes, leading to a third act that has to be seen for the scope of its inanity to be measured in full. In the end, Pumpkin has physically progressed beyond any realistic standards, and anyone who can’t get behind his relationship with Carolyn must be prejudiced or a fool. When Carolyn proudly announces, “Pumpkin’s not going to sit in the back of the bus anymore,” the obviously intentional analogy between the disabled and blacks is enough to make your jaw drop.

If the filmmakers had truly been interested in being edgy or anti-p.c., they might have quickly moved beyond their easy pot-shots at sororities, jocks and small-minded parents and considered satirizing how students today can be led or pressured into all sorts of misguided behavior by the politically correct climate at universities. Despite their pseudo-irreverent posturing, Broder and Abrams are just as sincere in their message mongering as was Stanley Kramer in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

All the characters are made to look silly, most of all Carolyn, which was surely not the intent; by default, the most sympathetic figure is the much-maligned Kent, who is seemingly punished for daring to call Pumpkin a “retard.” One other intriguing character is Carolyn’s poetry teacher, a black man (played by the excellent and underused actor Harry Lennix) terminally angry over having to waste his time teaching a bunch of air-headed white girls.

Made in a traditional rather than trendy style, pic gets good mileage out of a notably catchy collection of pop tunes on its soundtrack.

Pumpkin

Production

An MGM release of a United Artists presentation of an American Zoetrope production. Produced by Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, Karen Barber, Christina Ricci, Andrea Sperling. Executive producers, Francis Ford Coppola, Linda Reisman, Willi Baer. Co-producer, Melanie Backer. Directed by Adam Larson Broder, Tony R. Abrams. Screenplay, Broder.

Crew

Camera (CFI color), Tim Suhrstedt; editors, Sloane Klevin, Richard Halsey; music, John Ottman; music supervisors, Mary Ramos, Michelle Kuznetsky; production designer, Richard Sherman; set decorator, Paul Roome; costume designer, Edi Giguere; sound (Dolby Digital), Shawn Holden; supervising sound editor, Christopher Shelton; line producer, Betsy Danbury; assistant director, Haze J.F. Bergeron III; casting, Mary Vernieu, Anne McCarthy, Felicia Fasano, Rita Vanderwaal. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 14, 2002. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 121 MIN.

With

Carolyn McDuffy - Christina Ricci
Pumpkin Romanoff - Hank Harris
Judy Romanoff - Brenda Blethyn
Jeanine Kryszinsky - Dominique Swain
Julie Thurber - Marisa Coughlan
Kent Woodlands - Sam Ball
Robert Meary - Harry Lennix
Betsy Collander - Nina Foch
Claudia Prinsinger - Caroline Aaron
Chippy McDuffy - Lisa Banes
Dr. Frederico Cruz - Julio Oscar Mechoso
Burt Wohlfert - Phil Reeves
Hansie Prinsinger - Tait Smith
Casey Whitner - Michael Bacall
Corinne - Erinn Bartlett
Anne Chung - Michelle Krusiec
Cici Pinkus - Melissa McCarthy
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