It’s 1934, and two-bit sheet-music salesman Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) is deeply unsatisfied: with his work, with his marriage, with the drab everyday world he lives in. He wants to break out and seek adventure, romance, excitement, riches. He wants money to open his own record shop, he yearns to express his ardor, and he hankers for a little hanky-panky, but his prim and prudent wife Joan (Jessica Harper) won’t give up her nest-egg (if you know what I mean and I think that you do). Arthur takes up with a shy schoolmarm (Broadway baby Bernadette Peters) who harbors silver-screen dreams like his own. But nothing seems to make him happy, because nothing can.
Arthur’s inner contradictions are crushing. He rejects tangible pleasure at every turn: he pushes away meals though he’s hungry; he brushes off his wife’s hard-won wooing; after his lyrical daydreams of wooing his true love, he presses for a hasty hump on the couch; when a lady of the evening asks if he’d like to “have a good time,” he growls “No, I like being miserable!” Moments later he coos dreamily, “But I want to live in a world where the songs come true.” This is the heart of his ambivalence: Arthur craves the flimsy joys of fantasy, not the modest but attainable pleasures of the real world. He doesn’t want plain ol’ happiness; he wants the glamour of a Happy Ending, Hollywood style.
Coming on the heels of Steve Martin’s The Jerk, Pennies from Heaven was woefully mis-marketed as a fond fantasy glancing back at the giddy musicals of the 1930s. That misreading must have made the actual film all the more jarring for contemporary audiences.
Pennies from Heaven is a fantasy, all right, but a deliberately jarring one; the main characters break into song and dance to express their inner desires and fears, but after these glimpses into the dazzling paradise of their musical fantasies, the clunking return to the all-too-real world of grim Depression-era desperation stings viciously.
In these tawdry studies in dark and light, director Herbert Ross deliberately evokes paintings from the ashcan school, a point that gets hammered home when we see Arthur and Eileen through the famous diner window from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Then the angle changes, placing us inside the famous painting. It’s a risky ploy that Ross carries off again and again with breathtaking ease, recreating several Ashcan landscapes that give depth to the film’s heart even as they blend seamlessly into Arthur’s garish gimcrack world.
With its cruel interplay of luminous pipe dreams and dismal reality, Pennies from Heaven portrays the alienating effect of glitzy Hollywood fantasy as effectively as Sunset Boulevard or Mulholland Dr., raising us up along with the characters to grace the silver screen, then thumping us unceremoniously back to the dim, heavily shadowed rooms and streets of Arthur’s everyday.