Manufactured nostalgia is satisfying as the antique, but the reproduced musical extravaganza numbers in "Pennies from Heaven," fashioned after 1930s movies, are fun. In some, a satirical element is added, such as a classroom dream in which the grungy children are transformed into an orchestra dressed in white evening clothes and playing white instruments. But since much of the material that inspired it was itself tongue- in-cheek, the humor is not a modern contribution.
The modern view, in this film, is in the story line along which the old songs are strung. This is about a sheet-music salesman, played by Steve Martin, and his wife and his mistress, and it's a pair of sneers: one for the optimism of 1930s entertainment and one at the women, based on that odd but eternal assumption that no generation before the present one enjoyed sex.
The frigidity of the wife, played by Jessica Harper, is the chief joke of the film. To complete the misogynous view, the only woman in the picture who does like sex starts out being naughty-but-nice, but falls easily into the life of a prostitute: "I don't mind it as much as I thought I would."
But the poignancy of Bernadette Peters in the latter role unbalanced the internal integrity, so to speak, of this theme: The joke of being so easily seducible by a traveling salesman, and of a pregnancy that makes her an outcast who turns to prostitution, isn't much of a joke when she makes innocence and the pain of betrayal seem real.
The charm of her performance also damages Martin's believability. Cads have passed for heroes, then and now, but they were charming cads. PENNIES FROM HEAVEN -- At the AMC Academy, AMC Skyline, Dupont Circle, NTI Landover, NTI White Flint, Roth's Quince Orchard, Roth's Tysons Corner, Springfield Mall, Wheaton Plaza.