Pennies from Heaven is about how being a woman—particularly in the 1930s—is awful because you exist entirely for male consumption. If not sexually, then as production. The film’s supposed to be about how life’s just unfair for dreamers, in this case lead Steve Martin, who’s just trying to make the American Dream work for him; what’s standing in his way is wife Jessica Harper not wanting to give him her father’s estate so he can open a record store. He’s a traveling sheet music salesman in Chicago; he covers the rural points west.
We know Martin’s a dreamer because he daydreams in musicals. All of a sudden the movie will switch over to a big musical number with Martin and other actors lip-synching to period recordings. The musical stuff is good. Ross’s direction emphasizes the production, which is… fine. But the actual production of the numbers is excellent. Great choreography, so on and so forth. Martin’s very good at the dancing.
The same cannot be said about his “aw shucks” performance. Though some of the problem is Dennis Potter’s script; no one speaks his dialogue well until the second half of the movie, when Christopher Walken shows up and Bernadette Peters starts her fallen woman arc. Until that point, it seems like Potter’s dialogue just isn’t catching. But then all of a sudden Peters makes it breathtaking and it’s clear the problem’s a combination of Martin, Ross, and Potter, not Peters or Harper.
The film’s well-aware it’s about how being a woman is lousy—Peters gets seduced and knocked up by married Martin, who then abandons her multiple times, and finally ends up hooking. Harper—who manages to be the character with the least agency in the film, which is something because Martin’s got almost nil—is the cold fish preacher’s daughter wife who won’t give Martin enough sex or the money to start his store. Even though Martin humiliates her and then some cops humiliate her later on, Harper’s never presented sympathetically. If only she gave him some sugar (or the money sooner), look what might’ve been avoided.
Because somehow when it comes time to address Martin’s exploitation and mental abuse and manipulation, the movie just skips it. He’s the hero, after all, the dreamer who can’t find his American Dream. Again, it’s a combination of script, acting, and directing. Pennies from Heaven is only going to work if Martin’s transcendent.
And he’s not. Worse, he’s markedly better during the musical numbers than the dramatic, which makes the dramatic feel like a strange stagy vanity project, but one where he’s unenthusiastic about it too.
Nothing is worse than unenthusiastic vanity projects. Yes, he’s got the enthusiasm for the musical numbers—which disappear during at least twenty minutes of the film; it gives Peters a chance for some great acting in a middling film, but it also all drags. Her character’s ostensibly obsessed with Martin but he’s clearly a doofus. Yes, she’s supposed to be all in because of some kind of animal magnetism but… Martin hasn’t got any. The film cheating Harper out of getting rid of him at some point is a disservice to the work she put into her performance.
Wondrous photography from Gordon Willis—maybe thirty percent of Ross’s shots are good and there are some way too stagy ones—but Willis makes them all work. The film’s gorgeous.
Great dancing from Peters, Walken, and Vernel Bagneris (who’s got the majorly thankless part of the forgotten man). But he’s also really vile man. The only guy who’s not criminally creepy in Pennies from Heaven is Francis X. McCarthy, who plays a kindly bartender.
The end seems like it’s going to flop, then seems like it’ll do the right thing, but then it turns out doing the right thing is the wrong thing for the film anyway. Because it just isn’t going to work out. It just can’t.
Shame to waste the truly spectacular Peters performance.