[Film Review] Pennies from Heaven (1981)

Pennies from Heaven poster

Title: Pennies from Heaven
Year: 1981
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Musical
Director: Herbert Ross
Writer: Dennis Potter
Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Steve Martin
Bernadette Peters
Jessica Harper
Vernel Bagneris
Christopher Walken
John McMartin
Eliska Krupka
Jay Garner
John Karlen
Robert Fitch
Tommy Rall
Rating: 7.1/10

A critical box-office fiasco directed by Herbert Ross (THE GOODBYE GIRL 1977, CALIFORNIA SUITE 1978), PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is a Depression-era musical, alternates between a harsh reality and the dreamlike musical numbers of fantasy, it stars Steve Martin as a Chicago sheet-music salesman Arthur Parker, who is frustrated with his frigid wife Joan (Harper) and the failing business and gets smitten with a young school teacher Eileen (Peters) at his first glance. The affair costs Eileen her job and she deign to become a street hustler while Arthur returns to Joan, but eventually the two reunite and decide to start a new life together, but who will expect, Arthur’s one-time Good Samaritan deed to a homeless man who plays an accordion (Bagneris), will lead him to his doom as a scapegoat of a murder in this unjust, bleak world.

The plot is a continuum of despondency and dissatisfaction, and overtly sexually aggressive, devoid of any limerent whitewashing to appease its viewers, Arthur, is a undisguised lustful husband from the very beginning and Eileen is not a shrinking violet either in that aspect (nudge nudge), in a frank manner, she confesses that she is grateful to Arthur that she is able to be liberated from her prudish facade.

By sheer contrast, the imaginary sequences of dancing and lip-syncing with oldie tunes are glamorous to the hilt. The titular song is firstly mimed and danced by Bagneris in a showering of golden coins, and later poignantly used as an epilogue sung by Arthur with a noose nearby. A show-stopping Christopher Walken tap-dances in Cole Porter’s LET’S MISBEHAVE is an incredible boon to remind us that he can be deadly charming and dangerous within the same take. Martin, in his second leading film role and not long before his trademark white hair begin to sprout, excels in his burlesque deftness and dramatic expertise. The Broadway diva Bernadette Peters, extracts a profound ambivalence of good-girl-gone-bad transmogrification with her sultry body language and a baby-like poker face and last but not the least, Jessica Harper will be forever remembered for the lipsticks on her nipples.

PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is the last hurrah of the musical genre which had reigned Hollywood over 60 years, its unconventional tact of juggling with reality and escapism is ahead of its time and Dennis Potter’s pedestrian script cannot help it either, but in retrospect, it deserves a revitalization of Blu-Ray treatment, even just for the sake of those sumptuous and consummate dancing-and-singing parodies.

Pennies from Heaven 1981

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