Although the dialogue in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces is widely considered the funniest of any American novel of recent decades, the movie business has never been able to get its act together to film it. Yet, Confederacy's 28 years (and counting) in Development Hell pales beside the limbo in which languished Winifred Watson's 1938 novel Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a Bertie Wooster and Jeeves-style farce for two female lead characters.
Universal once planned to film it with Billie Burke (Glinda the Good Witch in "The Wizard of Oz") as Miss Pettigrew. Then, Pearl Harbor scrambled the schedule and the adaptation was shelved (as was Watson's writing career when her house was lost in the Blitz). "I wish the Japanese had waited six months," Watson said in 2000 at age 94, when Miss Pettigrew was republished to enthusiastic reviews.
If Watson had survived to 101, she could have finally seen her concoction on the screen, with long-faced Frances McDormand (who won the Oscar as the pregnant sheriff in her husband Joel Coen's "Fargo") as the dour and dowdy servant Miss Pettigrew. Amy Adams (who, after last summer's Disney musical "Enchanted," has finally arrived at age 33 as the starlet of the moment) plays her ditzy employer, a gold-digging nightclub chanteuse named Delysia Lafosse.
Guinevere Pettigrew is the anti-Mary Poppins, a London governess who has been fired so many times for trying to impose her Victorian morals on her 1930s streamline moderne employers, that, half-starved, she descends to finagling a job she's utterly unqualified for as the social secretary to the ambitious American actress. Delysia has 24 hours to decide among three men: her gangster boss in whose lavish art deco flat she's living, a star-making theatrical producer with whom she's sleeping, and a true-hearted but flat-broke pianist whom she's still loving.
Within hours, Miss Pettigrew is surprised to find herself stage-managing Miss Lafosse's complicated love life so adeptly that the rest of the smart set, such as salon-owner Shirley Henderson (doing an impression of Jennifer Jason-Leigh's impression of Dorothy Parker), is turning to the servitor for advice on their romantic entanglements.
Of course, this plot only makes sense if you assume that all of these characters straight out of P.G. Wodehouse's novels have had their expectations of what to expect from the hired help molded by reading Bertie and Jeeves books. Miss Pettigrew, however, is not a Spinoza-reading superman like the beloved butler, but a troubled soul whose heart has never recovered from the fiancé she lost in the Great War. Fortunately, some musical comedy plotting of the kind that Wodehouse churned out when he wrote the stories underlying many early Broadway shows ensues, and everybody winds up with her true love.
The BBC director Bharat Nalluri, who was born in India and grew up in Newcastle, might seem like an odd choice to direct this period piece, but nobody loves Wodehousian trifles more than Indians. Back in 1992, before the World Wide Web, I was involved in starting up a Usenet discussion group, alt.fan.Wodehouse. Possibly half the Wodehouse fans had Indians names.
Nalluri borrows the entire visual and musical style of his film from the overlooked but dazzling 2004 comedy "Bright Young Things," an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies by Stephen Fry, who played Jeeves in the delightful 1990s BBC series. Farces, however, need superb timing and Nalluri never quite gets "Miss Pettigrew" firing on all cylinders. And because the setting -- café society London between the Wars -- is so familiar from the grand masters, Wodehouse and Waugh, the screenplay needs a little more expertise than it musters.
Fortunately, the movie's shortcomings don't matter when Amy Adams is on screen. McDormand chooses to underplay her role, leaving space for the All-American strawberry blonde Adams, who received an Oscar nomination as the over-enthusiastic country girl in 2005's "Junebug," to scene-steal nonstop.
On paper, the amount of energy Adams puts into her role doesn't seem that remarkable: she's on-screen for one or two minutes per day of shooting -- nice work if you can get it. And yet, in contrast to stage-acting where actors are propelled along by the audience's appreciation, film-acting is an excruciating ordeal of hurry-up-and-wait. It's precisely the glacial pace of shooting a movie that's the reason so few people can deliver on celluloid the star power of Amy Adams.
Rated PG-13 for some partial nudity and innuendo.