Curious how upbeat and cheery the title, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day sounds despite that, in a harsher, ironic frame of mind, it suggests that the titular character has not had a day to really live out her life. That growing cynicism is probably why 1930s screwball comedies with such deceptive titles have been so rare in the movies lately. Well, for once in a long time, it is refreshing to know that a breezy screwball comedy can be made without being a remake or depending on obvious references to other movies of the genre.
The movie, of course, still carries the common theme of most period screwball comedies — class divide. The titular, misunderstood underdog character in this story is a lower class, middle-aged woman named Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) who can barely make a living on wages earned from constant babysitting jobs from home to home. After being fired from her latest job for being too difficult, rigid, and stern as well as having a disheveled look, her request for another job by the employment agency gets turned down. Thus, when she sees a card about an opening as a social secretary for an American socialite and aspiring actress, Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), she secretly takes it and seizes the opportunity.
Delysia, however, is not as genteel or refined as Guinevere expected when she first arrives and the same could be said for about 15 minutes of the film when McDormand and particularly Adams act a little too histrionically to reflect the latter’s high-strung personality and the former’s improvisational adjustment to it. The scene itself is certainly supposed to be quite frantic but the direction should keep it either in check or in focus, which it doesn’t particularly when Adams is moving about frantically in the background and the camera unwisely stays steadily on McDormand. I half-expected even the sets to start wobbling and moving around as both actresses endlessly run up and down the stairs.
After that opening scene though, both actresses and the film finally ease into a smooth and easygoing chemistry. McDormand’s Guinevere uses her quick wit and womanly wisdom to guide Adams’ Delysia in her quest to sort out a messy, frenzied life of hastily, foolishly seducing men to earn acting roles and figuring out whether one man, Michael (Lee Pace) may have more sincere feelings about her. Guinevere gets a makeover, too, as Delysia brings out the inner beauty under the ragged clothes and the frumpy hairdo.