Amy Adams must have had a backstock of energy after filming “Enchanted.” When she completed this Disney romance, in which she out-spirited any animated princess in memory, she headed to 1930s London with as much pizazz for “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.” Her Delysia Lafosse, a performer from America aspiring for the big time, is so jazzed by her prospects that she’s two-timing three guys, and even cheats on the sugar daddy of the trio in his own pad. Nutty? Quite so – but remember, we’re talking Adams here, who has yet to meet a kooky part she cannot master. (If you can’t recall “Junebug,” a little movie that was also her Oscar nom, think of her candy striper who steals DiCaprio’s heart in “Catch Me If You Can.”)
Delysia’s equal parts jittery and glamorous when at the door to meet Miss Pettigrew (the ever-reliable Frances McDormand), her new social secretary, an employ which she believes is a must for someone with her goals. The two actors’ chemistry in this early scene feels forced, as Adams flamboyantly flies about while the dowdy McDormand scurries along. Fortunately, it’s the movie’s only uneven point; the narrative recoups when the performers settle into a groove.
Guinevere Pettigrew, who’s really a governess, had sneaked the assignment card to assist Delysia from an employment agency. In a dire war-time London she needs the work, but what a hefty job she gets in the flighty little actress/songstress. Guinevere learns that Delysia has a naked plaything upstairs named Phil (newcomer Tom Payne), right before realizing that the flat they’re in belongs to another one of her honeys, a club owner named Nick (Mark Strong). The third will arrive shortly.
Guinevere takes charge as she helps shoo Phil out of the flat with Nick approaching on the stairway. When Nick arrives to coldly demand loving from his babe, by Guinevere’s wits they soon rid themselves of him so Delysia won’t miss her fashion show. It’s here that Delysia – after a deep breath and a drink – realizes Guinevere is in need of a makeover. This comes just in time for her to catch the eyes of a suave but courtly fashion designer, Joe (Ciarán Hinds).
But as the old adage of love stories mandates, there’s not much story unless we have a problem. And here it’s Edythe (a perfect Shirley Henderson), a Munchkin-voiced fashion bug who’s relationship with Joe is off, after she no-showed him on a date. In a revealing moment, she notes that he is her ticket to not just happiness, but security in trying times. And hence she’s all eyes on his attention to Guinevere. But Edythe’s relaxed about her competition, since she has the goods on Guinevere that may throw her newfound life overboard.
Even with Miss Pettigrew living it up, this light-as-air comedy makes room for two romantic story lines, lest we forget Delysia’s three-pronged ordeal. Out of the bunch, Michael, an endearing pianist, is the choice of Guinevere – and of the viewers, as he’s the most modern of the three. (Phil looks like a cad from a Busby Berkeley number, and Nick is of the Errol Flynn school.) But Nick gives her financial comfort, and Phil promises her a lead in a new play, while Michael doesn’t have more than a big heart. Integrity is called for, and this is why Guinevere becomes a pseudo-mentor. Even as she’s falling in love, she’s inclined to help with romantic advice for her new boss. An ever-delightful presence in any role, McDormand lends an emotional depth to make us care about Guinevere, while Delysia makes for a diversion. McDormand never lets us down, whether she’s “Laurel Canyon’s” free-lovin’ groupie or “Fargo’s” pregnant Marge. While McDormand nails her dialog with precision, her face suggests ranges of emotion with the subtlest touches. Her close-ups in “Miss Pettigrew” inject more for the movie than do many of its scenes.
It’s unique how an historical setting like this one – even with a German Blitz expected at any moment – can yield the lightest stories. Think of Woody’s “Bullets Over Broadway” and Frears’ more recent “Miss Henderson Presents” – earlier times call for nostalgic tones, in which we can indulge in the simple joys of hopefuls falling in and out of love. “Miss Pettigrew” plays like a breeze and ends before we know it. In the current state of cinema, all we can hope for is one like this per year.