Dirs: Adam Larson Broder, Tony R Abrams. US. 2002. 122min.

Too rambling and diffuse for its own good, Pumpkin, Adam Larson Broder and Tony R Abrams feature directorial debut, is a youth comedy that suffers from an uncertain tone and conflicting intentions. Christina Ricci, one of the most audacious actresses of her generation, is well cast as an ambitious member of a college sorority club, determined to use any means to become Sorority of the Year. The comedy vacillates between Farrelly brothers' gross-out and a softer, kinder and message-oriented humour, a blend that proves frustrating, and not particularly enjoyable, especially in the first part of the picture. The best thing for this UA summer release, which premiered at the Sundance Dramatic Competition, would be a trip back to the editing room to be cut by at least 20 minutes.

Written by co-director Broder, Pumpkin begins as a rude, nasty comedy in the vein of Michael Lehmann's Heathers and the Farrelly's There's Something About Mary. Perky, blond and perceiving herself as "just about perfect", Carolyn McDuffy (Ricci) plans to win the title and please the college council by wooing some quality newcomers and picking a "killer charity", in this case, coaching athletes for the Challenged Games, a Special Olympics-type event for the mentally and physically handicapped.

All the girls are in a state of anxiety and anticipation, when the boys' bus arrives on campus. To her shock and chagrin, Carolyn is assigned to work with a shy, insecure guy named Pumpkin Romanoff (Harris). An outcast par excellence, who's confined to a wheelchair, up until now Pumpkin has been utterly dependent on his overprotective, domineering mother (Blethyn, overacting), who claims she's the only one who knows what's best for her "special" boy.

The writers' inexperience is reflected throughout the narrative, which consists for the most part of broad types, if not stereotypes. Pumpkin's pure, sensitive soul and gentle humanity are contrasted with the athletic prowess and narcissistic sexuality of Carolyn's macho boyfriend (Ball), a handsome, not-too-bright jock. Most of the girls, particularly Carolyn's roommate, Jeanine (Lolita's Dominique Swain), are also narrowly conceived in a borderline caricature mode.

In the first reel, there's some fun to be had from observing the campus rituals and fierce competition among the various groups, each trying to outshine the other while using legit and illegit means. In these episodes, Pumpkin serves as a satirical send-up of collegiate life and students' reactions to just about anyone who's different from the desirable norm. At first, the scriptwriters go out of their way to be politically correct in the racial composition of the clubs (which includes Asians and Latinas), only moments later to spoof the whole notion of diversity as it permeates American colleges.

To the horror of her girlfriends, Pumpkin's mother and just about everyone else, Carolyn is not only touched by Pumpkin, but falls head over heels for him, thus turning herself into a freakish outcast. A courtship of sort ensues with Carolyn inspiring Pumpkin to push himself harder physically while not neglecting his literary and aesthetic inclinations. The last thing one expects from American comedies is to be realistic, but the rapid physical and mental progress that Pumpkin makes over such a short period of time is nothing short of a miracle.

If Pumpkin were made a decade ago, it would have benefited from its purported subversive freshness and new subject matter. However, thanks to the Farrellys (and others), American comedy, both the broad and the more subtle one (by, among others, Todd Solondz and Alexander Payne) over the past decade has broken just about any taboo or sacred cow in American culture, resulting in the love between two unlikely individuals in this film coming across as deja vu.

Moreover, Pumpkin can't decide if it's a subversive comedy a la Heathers, with dark, provocative humour, or humanistic and compassionate. Indeed, instead of walking that fine line (which is what makes the good Farrelly brothers' comedies more than just an aggregate of jokes about toilet humour and bodily functions), Pumpkin's lurching between these tendencies is not only irritating but aggravated by coarse and abrupt editing. Structurally, the film is flawed and shapeless, unfolding as a collection of barbs and messages, but lacking punch lines, comic focus and real cleverness.

The movie gets more witless as it progresses, forcing each character to repent or to be punished. Hence, it details a series of mishaps that befall Kent, who all too symmetrically endures his own injury and later is asked to apologise for calling Pumpkin a retard. As if these were not enough, Kent humiliatingly loses a physical brawl with the frail Pumpkin in public, suggesting that Pumpkin is not only a better man but also a better lover.

Indeed, in the last segments, when Pumpkin's true intent becomes clear, the comedy turns disappointing in another way. The film becomes too blatant and mushy in its message about how true feelings should override peer pressure and the desire for acceptance and popularity. It goes without saying that Pumpkin is also hampered by it predictability - the audience is always two steps ahead of the characters.

A talented, versatile actress, Ricci must have believed in the project's merits for she's credited as one of its executive producers. And while it's always interesting to follow the path of a gutsy actress, it's also sad to realise that her turn here is not a highlight but just a footnote in an otherwise brilliant career.

Prod co: An MGM/United Artists presentation of an American Zoetrope production
Exec prods: Francis Ford Coppola, Linda Reisman, Willi Baer.
Prods: Albert Berger, Ron Verxa, Karen Barber, Christina Ricci, Andrea Sperling
Scr: Adam Larson Broder
Cinematographer: Tim Suberstedt
Prod des: Richard Sherman
Eds: Sloane Klevin, Richard Halsey
Music: John Ottman
Main cast: Christina Ricci, Hank Harris, Brenda Blethyn, Dominique Swain, Sam Ball