The novel "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" was reputedly first optioned by Universal in 1940. But the war came, as it does in the movie, and plans to turn "Pettigrew" into a feature were hustled out the door, just like Frances McDormand's down-on-her-luck maid in the opening scene. The movie, then, has received a second chance, just like its character. Where the two stories diverge is important. In the book, Miss Pettigrew's life-change happens in a day. The adaptation's change took 60-plus years, and they haven't been friendly to it.
The story of a dysfunctional maid (McDormand) who befriends a cheeky club singer (Amy Adams), "Miss Pettigrew" would seem perfectly arranged to parlay a winning cast, gorgeous art direction and a fairly interesting premise into a surprise hit. Though we never see Miss Guinevere Pettigrew messing up her life, the gist we get is that she's too prim and proper even for the society ladies she tends and wont to teach her employers lessons whenever they don't behave to her liking.
After the employment agency informs her that her services will no longer be needed, Miss Pettigrew cons her way into one more position, as the personal assistant to Delysia (Adams), a handful of an aspiring actress who's dating three men, each of whom fulfills one of her basic needs -- success, shelter and sex.
Delysia is an ingénue and vamp all rolled into a perpetually enterprising but ditsy ball of energy. She's also an unintentional symbol for part of the problem with this story, which wants to have it all without much idea of what it's all about. Delysia at first needs Miss Pettigrew to help her keep all her men straight, and Miss Pettigrew needs to eat, though their relationship eventually turns into mutual extended makeover sessions: for Miss Pettigrew, her wardrobe, and for Delysia, her moral makeup.
The story is nicely packaged into a single day, with some cute moments afforded the leads, who cheerfully march through a dazzling array of '40s-era clothing and architecture. But in the end all these reminders of yesteryear only underline the notion that this material was created to titillate people who actually lived back then. Miss Pettigrew's day, alas, is long gone. (PG-13) 92 min. S