By Peter Sobczynski: There are two possible approaches that the makers of the modern-day fairy tale "Penelope" could have utilized in order to tell their story–it could be an achingly earnest fable about the importance of not judging a book by its cover and how real beauty comes from within or it could be a wickedly deadpan satire of achingly earnest fables about the importance of not judging a book by its cover and how real beauty comes from within. Either approach could have resulted in a satisfactory film but the problem with "Penelope"–okay, one of many problems with "Penelope"–is that it is pretty evident that no one involved with its production ever settled on a single take on the material and the film instead see-saws between sincerity and snarkiness in a manner that becomes increasingly tiresome as it progresses.
Once upon a time, many years ago, a member of the rich, powerful and blue-blooded Wilhern family canoodled with a lowly servant and then kicked her out when she became pregnant. In revenge, the servant girl’s mother, who just happened to be a witch, conjures up a hex that states that the first-born daughter of a Wilhern will be cursed with the nose of a pig, a spell that can only be broken by the unconditional love of one of her own kind. After a couple of hundred years and an impressive string of male issue, the curse finally rears its ugly head when Penelope, the daughter of Franklin Wilhern (Richard E. Grant) and wife Jessica (Catherine O’Hara), is indeed born with a snout for the ages. After rumors of her deformity make the news, the horrified Jessica fakes Penelope’s death and raises her in secret within the walls of the lavish family mansion in order to keep her out of public view. Years later, Jessica frantically tries to break the curse by recruiting any number of young fellow blue-bloods to ask for Penelope’s hand in marriage. The result is always the same–after a few minutes of small talk, Penelope (Christina Ricci) comes out and the would-be suitors flee in horror (often through the nearest window) while a fearsome manservant chases after them with a non-disclosure form.
It is, of course, a tradition of ugly duckling films like this that the main character is almost always portrayed by a beautiful young woman who has had grotesque make-up applied to her otherwise flawless visage in a manner that makes her look exactly like a beautiful young woman who has had grotesque make-up applied to her otherwise flawless visage. It usually doesn’t work–we can always see the glamour girl itching to get out even when she is supposedly at her dowdiest–but I can’t easily recall a version of this conceit as implausible as the one here. For starters, although the nose may well belong to Babe, the rest of Penelope belongs to a babe and while I may be mistaken, my guess is that most guys, whether their blood is blue or crimson-hued, would crawl across broken glass to be with someone looking like Christina Ricci, regardless of what her nose looks like. Even if I am wrong in that estimation, and I know I’m not, you also cannot escape the fact that Penelope seems way too comfortable and pre-possessed with her honker for her own good. Instead of simply bemoaning her fate and allowing herself to be dominated by her mother’s neuroses, you wonder why she doesn’t just strike off on her own–in the real world, she would be cast in either an edgy ad campaign or a Pedro Almodovar film within a week.
Anyway, things begin to change in Penelope’s world when loathsome potential suitor Edward Vanderman Jr. (Simon Woods) escapes the clutches of both Penelope and the non-disclosure agreement and gabs to the press about being attacked by a pig-faced monster. His rantings are ignored by everyone except for Lemon (Peter Dinklage), a tabloid reporter who lost an eye years ago pursuing the Penelope story and sees Vanderman’s claims as a way of finally proving his claims from long ago. To this end, they recruit down-on-his-luck fancy lad Max to show up at the Wilhern house with a hidden camera in order to take a picture of Penelope. Inevitably, Max and Penelope hit it off beautifully while she is under wraps but when she unveils herself, Max has a sudden crisis on conscience, tells her that he can’t marry her and runs off without taking a picture. Crushed by what she perceives to be both another rejection and annoyed by her mother’s constant reminders about her allegedly hideous deformation, Penelope finally runs away from home to the big city, which goes unnamed but which appears to be the sister city of the bustling metropolis where the other Babe landed in the criminally underrated masterpiece "Babe: Pig in the City." In no time at all, she makes friends with a tough-talking messenger (Reese Witherspoon in an appearance that can be explained only by the fact that she co-produced the film), becomes a beloved media sensation when she sells photos of herself for some much needed money and, through circumstances too contrived to get into at this point, finds herself at the altar with the hideous Vanderman while Max, who has some secrets of his own, tries to save her from making an enormous mistake.
As I said earlier, the central problem with "Penelope" is one of approach. At times, it wants to be a sincere paean to the joys of inner beauty, being yourself and all that while at other times, it seems as if it wants to skewer those notions in the way that the classic TV movie "The Girl Most Likely To" (in which an ugly duckling became a beautiful swan and used her beauty as a way of murdering all of her past tormentors) did many years ago. If it had chosen one of these particular approaches, the film might have had a chance of working but by bouncing back and forth between the two, it creates a singularly schizoid viewing experience in which we aren’t sure whether we should be feeling genuine sympathy for the characters as they go through the motions of the story (the sincere take) or laughing at them from a distance (the snarky take). To further add to the confusion, the film has Christina Ricci, one of the great cynical presences in American movies today (if you doubt this, check out her sublime work in such films as "Addams Family Values," "The Opposite of Sex" or the hilarious "Pumpkin"), playing the sweet-tempered Penelope and while she does as much with the part as she possibly can, she can’t help but come up with the occasional line reading that suggests a darker take on the material than the screenplay seems to call for.
Then again, perhaps Ricci came up with this particular approach as a way of privately amusing herself during the production of a project that, based on the end results, must have gone off the rails fairly early. The screenplay, as previously suggested, is an atonal mash of scenes that don’t work at all (including everything involving Catherine O’Hara’s character), scenes that might have worked better with stronger writing (the stuff involving Dinklage) and the rare moments that actually do work (although she isn’t especially credible as a tough-talking messenger, Reese Witherspoon does admittedly give the film a much-needed shot of life when she pops up in the late innings) that are spackled together with one boring sequence after another. The film struggles to convey the modern-day fairy tale look and feel that films such as "Edward Scissiorhands" and "Babe: Pig in the City" conveyed so effortlessly but debuting director Mark Palansky has no idea of how to go about it and his attempts to achieve that sense are so forced and laborious that they wind up dragging down the proceedings. Outside of Ricci and Witherspoon (and Dinklage, to a lesser extent), the performances are also a fairly confusing lot. McAvoy is a drag as the would-be suitor, Simon Woods as the blue-blood bounder is more annoying than evil, Richard E. Grant, one of the great over-the-top performers at work today, is curiously restrained as Penelope’s father while Catherine O’Hara goes so far in the opposite direction without ever quite managing to quite find the right tone that you’ll find yourself involuntarily flinching every time that she walks into the frame.
Somewhere buried deep within "Penelope" is a good movie waiting to get out–if there was a show on television today along the lines of the late, great Shelly Duvall production "Faerie Tale Theatre," I can imagine it working wonderfully there in the hands of the right people. And yet, the film never scratches beneath the surface–ironic when you consider that the whole notion of looking beyond surfaces to find something deeper is the film’s message (assuming that we are supposed to take it at face value)–and it winds up meandering around without much of a purpose or a point. Some viewers may find its self-conscious eccentricities to be somehow charming but if you put this film in a contest against such other contemporary fairy tales as "The Princess Bride" or "Ella Enchanted," it wouldn’t come close to winning–not even by a nose.
1 ½ STARS RATED PG-13
Written by Leslie Caveny. Directed by Mark Palansky. Starring Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Catherine O’Hara, Peter Dinklage, Richard E. Grant and Reese Witherspoon.