Picks and Pans Review: Pennies from Heaven

updated 01/25/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/25/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Not since Heaven's Gate has there been a cinematic catastrophe of this magnitude. Director Herbert (The Turning Point) Ross has attempted to make a 1930s musical with 1980s sensibilities. The result is a costly (reportedly $19 million) fiasco. Everything about this picture is woefully wrongheaded—from the casting of Steve Martin in a romantic lead to the unnerving lip-synching of old songs to the incongruity of the lavish production numbers. Busby Berkeley's movies were designed to help the viewer forget the Depression; Pennies creates the opposite effect by dwelling on poverty. The screenplay by BBC writer Dennis Potter combines an unsettling mix of moods; it starts out lightly enough, with Martin as a struggling but cheerful 1930s sheet-music salesman. Before long events take a distinctly sinister turn, and a murder and hanging ensue. It's as if Mickey Spillane had tried to write a musical comedy. Only Bernadette Peters manages to rise above the gloomy material, exuding a breathless vitality in turning from small-town innocent to pouty sexpot. One can see Martin's comic instincts lurking just below the surface, but director Ross never lets them burst forth. And poor Jessica Harper is mired in a thankless role as Martin's wife. It's a nightmare you can't laugh off. (R)

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