Make no mistake: Penelope is a fairy tale. I mention this at the outset because the filmmakers do too, appearing almost desperate to point it out as often and early as possible. The movie begins, for example, with a "once upon a time" title card, in case the story of a girl born with a pig's nose due to a gypsy's curse that can only be undone by true love is mistaken for another movie about Iraq.Christina Ricci
plays Penelope, the besnouted girl. Ricci is comfortable in fantasy from her work with Tim Burton and Barry Sonnenfeld (and, for that matter, Vincent Gallo), but Penelope lacks character beyond idle fairy-tale outlines, and Ricci regresses, coming off a good decade younger than she is and trading in her otherworldly spark for generic adolescence -- something she rarely did as an actual adolescent. Article continues below
Penelope's rich family wants to marry her off to an equally rich suitor in hopes of breaking the spell; cut to lots of exaggerated takes of men running screaming from Penelope's mild disfigurement. The first one to stick around for any measure of time is Max (James McAvoy
). McAvoy's raffish but nonthreatening charm makes him a good fit, just short of a bland Prince Charming. The screenplay adheres so strenuously to bad romantic formula, though, that he and Ricci must be driven apart as soon as they start to seem like a good couple. So Penelope runs from Max, escapes her overbearing family, and sets out to explore the real world -- which in this case is a bizarre Euro-American hybrid.
There is some fun in watching Ricci's big, inquisitive eyes take in the half-baked sights. But the movie's whimsy has already begun to seem arbitrary: Amidst this cross-bred fantasy world with no short supply of U.K. voices, genuine Scot McAvoy is inexplicably forced to don a flat American accent. It's a small detail, to be sure, but emblematic for a movie that seems not to know its strengths. Take its use of Catherine O'Hara
: She can be hilarious in conjunction with good writing (or even good outlines, as in the Christopher Guest films), but defaults to shrillness so easily, as is the case here in her scenes as Penelope's high-strung, status-conscious mother.
But, the movie would surely like to point out again, this is a fairy tale, which may be the attempted excuse for its sheer number of sputtering and/or manic performances. One exception is Reese Witherspoon
, also a producer on the project, and pasted in as a tough biker chick who strikes up a friendship with Penelope. She's not convincing, but her chumminess with Ricci is natural enough to wish -- cautiously -- that it was a focal point rather than a cameo opportunity. As is, the agreeability of their scenes together combined with their infrequency makes the movie feel like a buddy comedy that Witherspoon didn't have time to finish herself.
Penelope has its heart in the right place, seeking to impart lessons about inner beauty, loving yourself, and following your heart. It's more instructive in the ways that genuine fairy tales can be as unimaginative as the romantic comedies that strive to evoke them. It's only missing a scene where the heroine cries angry tears and demands to know if that's all she is to the hero, a stupid bet. Or maybe it's not missing. Maybe I've forgotten it already.