It's a bit of a pity that Frances McDormand's first performance in two years (and the first time she appears to be enjoying herself in much longer) is doomed to be lost in the shadow of Amy Adams's attempt to prove she's not a one-hit wonder. This is after all a perilous moment for Adams: now that Enchanted made her famous, she needs something to prove that she can be a star.

The first attempt (not that it could have been planned that way) is Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a self-conscious throwback to the farces of the 1930s, in which McDormand plays Miss Pettigrew, a prim British governess who finds herself unemployed and scraping for food on the streets when she finds an opportunity to serve as the social secretary for an inordinately flighty, over-sexed American "actress," Delysia Lafosse, played by Adams as a bubbly conniver.

Broadly speaking, the film works more than it doesn't. Much of the time, the line between those two points is so fine that you can hear the straining noises, and it's a little obvious that director Bharat Nalluri hasn't really worked in farce before. Some scenes - Miss Pettigrew and Delysia's first meeting, for one - are fleet and mostly effective (with the occasional drift into unwarranted mania), while some just kind of poke around, looking for jokes that don't always come. The dead giveaway is the performers, particularly the menfolk. Not a single male in the film seems to have any real grasp on what he's doing there, although the unnaturally reliable Ciarán Hinds, who has the least comedy to grapple with, does the best job of making his particular batch of contrivances work. Performances that wander this much in search of their note are invariably a sign that something isn't going right up top.

But as I said, it works more often than not, and I'm standing by that judgment. Mostly because, when all is said and done, it does exactly what it needed to for Adams: it proves she can be a star. It fails entirely to prove that she has much range - and I'm not arguing that she doesn't, only that this isn't the film to silence the naysayers. Stardom isn't about being a great performer, necessarily. Adams is on track to become a great star in the old-fashioned, studio system way: she has a strong, appealing persona that can be molded to fit the needs of a given story or character. Her cuteness and bubbliness (two words that are alarmingly over-used to describe the actress, I'll admit) are given a sort of blunt edge by Delysia's frank sexuality in this movie, but it's still her cuteness and her bubbliness, and while I am sympathetic to those who find her annoying, I can't find much common ground with them. Frankly, I wish we had more actors like Amy Adams, who find one mode and run it into the ground; the last time the movies were like that was in the 1930s, and movies were a hell of a lot better then than they are now.

Back to the matter at hand: the artlessness of Adams's work in Miss Pettigrew &c is part of what makes the film function, because like the film, it is self-evidently fake. I contend that good farce, more than any genre of anything, is rooted in a cheerful embrace of its own synthetic nature. We're watching something artificial, dammit, and that's what makes it fun to watch as the clockwork of the plot ticks away. It's not a very comfortable place for modern audiences to be, with their fixation on realism, and given that it by necessity must be anchored on a synthetic character performed in a synthetic way, it's even less comfortable for our solidly post-Method cinema. But Adams goes for it, much more than her director does, and she makes the film a lot brighter than it would else have been.

As I started with McDormand, so shall I end with her. Though she has the titular role, it seems less important than Adams's, and more indifferently written. This is a problem for the film, which pivots around an ill-defined center. But McDormand has what Adams does not, gravitas, and she lets just enough of it into her performance that it gives the film enough weight to keep from blowing away. This too is a component of farce. And McDormand's readings of a few choice lines - one in particular about society's short memory of war - are lovely enough to make a fairly rote character much more human than the role deserves.

The overriding characteristic of the film is not its unmitigated success, but how very much it flirts with success. More than anything, I love that Miss Pettigrew tries to be a vintage comedy rather than a modern version of a vintage comedy, the smutty innuendo notwithstanding. It's a bold choice that founders a bit on the director's weakness with the material, but it still looks like something we virtually never see in the English speaking world. It knows what it wants to be, and just about almost makes it there. That might keep it from being a masterpiece, but it's enough for it to be a pleasant way to spend some time.