Pennies from Heaven Movie Review

From the start of his career, Steve Martin was eager to kill his image as the man with the arrow through his head, the wild and crazy guy, the Jerk. But in 1981, when he took on the lead role in this quirky, somber and elegant musical set in Great Depression Chicago, both critics and audiences balked. After a decade of tough-guy '70s flicks, a sepia-toned melodrama with strange casting - Christopher Walken dances! -- wasn't anybody's idea of a good time. Two decades after its flop, though, it's worth discovering, or re-discovering - a charming first glimpse of the gravitas that Martin fought hard for as an actor.

Martin plays Arthur, a down-on-his luck sheet-music salesman worn out by his loveless marriage to Joan (Jessica Harper) - loveless, in part, because his life with Joan can't match the fantasies produced by the lyrics he sells. Hitting the road, he meets Eileen (Bernadette Peters), a mousy but sweet school teacher. Together, they fall in love, and express that love in dance and song. Sort of: They're actually lip-synching to songs of the '30s, riffing on old music the same way that Martin would riff on old films less successfully a few years later in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. After Arthur gets cold feet about the relationship - not before dancing quite well - Eileen falls into the dastardly clutches of Tom (Walken), a pimp. It's Walken's performance that makes the film - a dowdy but charming tap-dance striptease to Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave." With a pencil-thin mustache and a lecherous leer, he has all the fearfulness he showed in The Deer Hunter with a sophistication he never showed off often enough.

In the end, though, there were too many quirky notions floating around Pennies from Heaven to make it a success; its failure scared MGM off from musicals for years. A few decades of deeply ironic Hollywood films makes its high-concept attack easier to swallow, but just as importantly it's a pleasure to look at. Director Herbert Ross, along with cinematographer Gordon Willis, captures the look and feel of '30s America, both in the wide shots of dank city alleyways and tight interiors of sleazy bars and bedrooms. One shot deliberately echoes Edward Hopper's famous painting "Nighthawks," and that's the mood Pennies from Heaven evokes: Dark as night but perfectly lit, a little sad but with a song in its heart.

The cast and crew reunite for a 20 year reunion (done live after some screening) included on the DVD. Film critic Peter Rainer offers minimalistic commentary on a handful of scenes (What, couldn't get through the whole thing? Huh.).

Heavens to Betsy!

Cast & Crew

Director :


Pennies from Heaven Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 1981


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