Monday 10 November 2014

Penelope Fortesque: Romance Novelist (2014)

Director: Aaron Seever
Stars: Aaron Seever and Leslie Wall
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
This quirky short with its tongue twister of a multi-syllabic title was a great way to break the ice and kick off the Arizona Shorts selection at this year's Phoenix Film Festival. It's a one joke movie, if truth be told, but Aaron Seever makes it a funny enough joke to keep us laughing through its ten minute running time. This isn't the first time I've seen him act, as he was also in both The Tent and Kerry and Angie, but this is his debut behind the camera, at least as far as IMDb acknowledges. He's credited as director, lead actor and executive producer, but I presume he's also the uncredited scriptwriter who adapted the story to the screen from a short play by Myrissa Jeppson, so while it was her joke to begin with, it's just as clearly his film. However, that joke springs, as you might expect, not from Ben Johnson, whom Seever plays as the straight man throughout, but from the title character of Penelope Fortesque, as breathlessly and rather flamboyantly brought into being by Leslie Wall, who memorably runs riot with her.

Ben is meeting Penelope for a blind date, after which he will surely dump the mutual acquaintance who set them up. It goes that badly. It would surely have gone much better if only the young lady could find a way to leave her day job behind. It's one thing to dress in a dated pink number and offer her hand to him as he introduces himself, for his unromantic soul to shake instead of kiss, but another to treat the entire experience as a narrative. After introducing herself, perhaps tellingly pronouncing her surname with two syllables rather than three, she continues on in stage soliloquy. 'She stood there enduring the look of his masculine approval,' she breathes to his acute discomfort, 'colouring slightly as his gaze lingered on the swell of her ample bosom and the supple curve of her naked ankle.' In response, Ben can only manage, ''scuse me?' This exchange had the Phoenix Film Festival audience laughing out loud and it only builds from there to the inevitable finalé.

I thoroughly enjoyed this well staged debacle, but perhaps in a different way to the rest of the audience. I couldn't help but remember another film sourced from a play; this one was by Eugene O'Neill, who won a third Pulitzer prize for his work, and it was adapted to the screen by MGM in 1932 with the dream cast for that year of Norma Shearer and Clark Gable. Both were called Strange Interlude and they brought into a modern setting the old theatrical convention of the soliloquy, whereby an actor can temporarily leave the confines of the play and speak his mind aloud. Some of Shakespeare's most famous lines were written in soliloquy, including 'To be or not to be, that is the question' in Hamlet and 'Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?' in Romeo and Juliet. The catch was that when updated to the melodrama of the 1920s and 1930s, it was frankly hilarious, especially when characters started duelling soliloquys. I howled through it and included the film in my book, Huh? An A-Z of Why Classic American Bad Movies Were Made.

The problem was that Strange Interlude took itself seriously, while Penelope Fortesque: Romance Novelist absolutely plays for laughs. What's most hilarious to me is that both films do exactly the same thing, with completely different expectations. When Ben and Penelope are seated and waiting for drinks, in waltzes a friend of Ben's from college, Julia Fisher. Naturally he stands and greets her, while Penelope hurls out her thoughts like barbed arrows. When she describes Julia, who she's never met before, as having 'morals as low as her neckline', I found myself transported back into Strange Interlude, as that could well have been one of Norma Shearer's lines in that film, expected to be taken seriously. Here, whether it's sourced from Jeppson or Seever or anyone else, it's hilarious. By the time she reaches, 'At last destiny had brought her a love, a love stronger than a restraining order,' it was unmistakeably the anti-Strange Interlude, a fresh update of the update for the current generation. It's well written, memorably acted and oodles of fun.

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