Penelope (2006) / Romance-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG for thematic elements, some innuendo and language
Running time: 95 min.
Cast: Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Catherine O'Hara, Peter Dinklage, Richard E. Grant, Reese Witherpoon, Simon Woods, Ronni Ancona, Nick Frost
Director: Mark Palansky
Screenplay: Leslie Caveny
Review published July 30, 2008
This quirky comedy, directed by first-timer Mark Palansky and written by sitcom vet Leslie Caveny ("Everybody Loves Raymond", "NewsRadio"), attempts to deliver a fairy tale romance amid a modern day setting, and fails in almost every regard. Most successful fairy tales have something magical or profound at the heart of the film, but Penelope's story only gives the form of a fairy tale without any of the substance. In place of honest whimsy is a tone of offbeat idiosyncrasies and shallow characterizations, with cartoonish, implausible reactions. A good cast of actors can do little but keep offering energy in place of quality material to work with that would help the fantasy story take flight.
The story begins with some background information several generations ago, regarding a gypsy witch's curse on the blood family of Wilhelms that the next daughter born into the family will resemble a pig in appearance. Many boys are born, and one or two daughters conceived from extramarital affairs, so it isn't until about the late 20th Century that Penelope (Ricci, Cursed) would enter the world with a pig's snout that even plastic surgery can't erase. So protective of their daughter were her parents Jessica (O'Hara, Monster House) and Franklin (Grant, Corpse Bride) that Penelope could not leave the mansion for fear of ridicule and persecution they thought she couldn't withstand. However, they do have hope that the curse might be lifted, if only Penelope can marry a "blue-blood" gentleman of equivalent wealth or birth (because, I guess, many men would still marry a woman with a pig's snout for her money).
Penelope courts men through a one-sided mirror, hoping to find a man who might be able to accept her for who she is once they get to know her lovely personality, but when the time comes to reveal her true face, they literally go running for the hills. Enter Max (McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland), a gambling addict who finds himself the tool for a nosy reporter named Lemon (Dinklage, Find Me Guilty), who wants to get the big scoop on the prestigious family's dark secret. Max is hired to lure the girl out to get a picture to expose her in the newspaper, but he soon finds he enjoys spending his time with the young woman, so much so that he begins to question whether or not he can go through with the task.
Penelope is billed as a fairy tale romantic comedy, but suffers from not being a good example of all three. The fairy tale aspects only really come into play in the prologue and the film's ending. The bulk of the film merely deals with a girl dealing with a physical deformity that her parents think others will never see beyond to love and appreciate her like they do. In some ways, while done out of love, their notion isn't as goodly as they might think, as these upper class people seem to think that her ugliness is more a blight on their family's reputation than an easy way to be hurtful to a young woman. The fact that they hide her face, then allow her to hear and feel the full brunt of horror and disgust on what she might hope to be her future husband seems a much more cruel experience than in accepting her unconditionally and allowing her out into the world.
One other quizzical aspect of the production is the mix of British and American actors that appear throughout. Although filmed in England, there is an inordinate amount of American accents in the film, including Penelope herself. Even Scotsman James McAvoy and Brit Nick Frost (Kinky Boots) speak like Yanks for reasons I'm altogether unsure of. Reese Witherspoon (Just Like Heaven, Walk the Line) makes a small appearance in the film as a tough biker chick who befriends Penelope, but outside of lending her face and name to the production, I fail to see the point of her inclusion. That Witherspoon serves as one of the producers of the film may have something to do it, perhaps as a way to increase the marketability and distribution a bit. The film was still shelved for two years despite the star's presence.
At the heart of every lasting fairy tale, there is something imaginative that happens whereby people feel connected to on some level to be able to relate to its fanciful storyline enough to not question the lack of realism. Unfortunately, Penelope doesn't establish its "anything can happen" premise sufficiently to understand the logical leaps required in the story, and the fate of Penelope herself doesn't provide enough of a rooting interest to keep our attention through the many eccentric characters and their increasingly boisterous noise level. Even the moral of the story, if there is one -- that one can never be loved by others until one loves themselves -- is a bit lost when Penelope is shown as having been embraced by so many for her imperfections, and then the story itself continues to see her physical appearance as an impediment to be rid of even beyond her acceptance of it.
Without laughs, a convincing romance, or conviction to following the basic rules of fairy tale formulas, I'm guessing that the only audience for this film resides in the crowd that likes strange and colorfully cute stories independent of such things as fundamental logic or narrative coherence. Given that mainstream viewers seem to like it, at least based on comments I've read on movie sites, that must be a fairly sizable crowd indeed. Incessant noise, both visual and auditory, does little to distract from the fact that Penelope revels in wallowing in its own conceptually muddied existence. It may pale as a fairy tale, but it might succeed as a bedtime story; I was fighting off the urge to sleep throughout.
©2008 Vince Leo