March 6, 2008

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Penelope (PG)
Christina Ricci has blue blood but a pig nose in the sweet modern fairy tale Penelope.

Down the trunk of the Wilhern family tree, a son rejected the love of a servant girl, who was so distraught that she did herself in. Her mother, the town witch, was herself so distraught that she cursed the family — the result of which was that about a century later, Penelope (Christina Ricci) was born with a pig nose and pig ears that would only disappear when she found the love of “one of her own kind.” Her father Franklin (Richard E. Grant) and mother Jessica (Catherine O’Hara) did what they thought would be best for Penelope — they faked her death and raised her in secret so that she wouldn’t be publicly shamed for her schnoz. Once she hit marrying age, her mother focused on making Penelope cultured wife material (French lessons, music, manicures) and, with the help of a match-maker, on introducing her to as many eligible blueblood boys (their “own kind”) as they could find. Sadly, even the ones who seemed initially sympathetic usually ran away once they got a good look at Penelope, many of them not bothering with the stairs and just jumping out the second-floor window.

Edward (Simon Woods) was just such a jumper, running out of the house swearing that he saw a human pig girl complete with fangs. No one at the police department believed him, naturally, and they even locked him up thinking he was delusional. When he went to the newspaper to ask for a retraction to their story that he was locked up for nuttiness, Edward couldn’t get the editor to believe him either — it wasn’t until he crossed paths with one-eyed photographer Lemon (Peter Dinklage) that he found a sympathetic ear. For Lemon had lost his eye snapping a photo of the newborn Penelope and he too thought he saw something not quite right with her nose. Together Edward and Lemon scheme to find a ringer blueblood, someone they can send into the house wired with a hidden camera to get a shot of the pig girl. And when they find Max (James McAvoy), who appears to be a down and out blueblood gambling away the family fortune, they think they have just the right guy.

Of course, all you need is one fairy tale under your belt to know that the handsome young man is seldom so heartless when it comes to the sweet young victim of a witch’s curse.

Penelope is different from your standard Cinderella variation in that Penelope spends a lot of time alone and more or less gives up on the idea of love in search of something that might ultimately be better — being OK with herself. Her disappointment at love spurs her not to pine away and sing to her animal friends but to set off on her own and see the world (or at least, see a bit more of the world than the mansion where she’d spent most of her life). When she is “rescued” of a sort, it’s not by a handsome prince but by a spunky delivery girl, Annie (Reese Witherspoon, in a surprisingly small role), who teaches her about getting drunk, mild sex talk, riding on the back of a scooter and reconsidering the circumstances during which Penelope’s heart was broken by the boy who might or might not have really loved her.

Annie makes a good sidekick to this American princess but her role seems unnaturally truncated, like there might be more scenes of gal-pal-ness lying on an editing room floor. There are similar oddities all over this movie — Ricci’s role seems lacking the kind of depth that you usually get in an alterna-fairytale, lacking even of the depth of Amy Adams’ role in the far more corporate Enchanted. Characters seem to appear and disappear without a lot of closure. There are times when all the cues in the movie suggest that some moment or person is meaningful but then the story drops them and the audience never figures out what it was the movie was trying to say. This movie has been floating around for a while, almost on the “upcoming films” schedule only to itself vanish at least once. Did some hocus pocus happen in the meantime? Were scenes reworked or used differently than intended?

I wish I could have seen the movie as whatever it was supposed to be or, if this is what it was supposed to be, then I wish it could have been worked on a little more. The characters are charming (Peter Dinklage as the morally conflicted paparazzi is wonderful and O’Hara manages to make her mother character both unlikeable and sympathetic), the story has promise and the dialogue is smart-ish and funny enough. But, like Tinkerbell with her fairy dust, this movie never really gets off the ground and soars. B-

Rated PG for thematic elements, some innuendo and language. Directed by Mark Palansky and written by Leslie Caveny, Penelope is an hour and 30 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Summit Entertainment.