There's a difference between movies that are whimsical and movies that only think they are, and "Penelope" makes a firm splat in the latter category. Directed by Mark Palansky (making his feature debut), penned by sitcom writer Leslie Caveny, and produced by Reese Witherspoon through her Type A Films banner, the film has sat on the shelf for close to two years. The reasons aren't difficult to list offit's terminally bland, the plot exhibits miniscule amounts of innovation and interest, and the romance emulates the amount of fireworks typically seen on Arbor Day. The biggest downfall of "Penelope," though, is that no target audience exists for it. The fairy tale elements signal a skew toward the younger set, but they won't at all care about the adult relationships and dreary storytelling on display. Teenagers won't think it's hip enough. Grown-ups will find it all too juvenile and silly. Just about the only viewers who might take a liking to it are blue-haired biddies with undiscriminating tastes.
The victim of a generations-old curse on her family tree, 25-year-old Penelope (Christina Ricci) was born with a pig snout in the place of a human nose and has been shielded from the public eye all her life by partially worried, partially embarrassed parents Jessica (Catherine O'Hara) and Franklin (Richard E. Grant). The spell will allegedly be lifted if Penelope finds someone who will be able to look beyond her abnormal appearance and love her unconditionally, but so far all potential suitors have literally jumped out the windows in a mad dash to get away from her. The one man capable of seeing Penelope for the beautiful soul she really is is Max (James McAvoy), a down-on-his-luck musician in cahoots with a tabloid journalist (Peter Dinklage) who is offering him big bucks to snap her picture.
The first thirty minutes of "Penelope" are as dull as prepackaged string cheese, and what follows, with the protagonist fleeing her parents' grasp and exploring the outside world for the first time, plays like "Enchanted
" without a modicum of the entertainment value, chemistry and creativity. The very premise of a young woman who has been sheltered all her life and takes a leap into the "real world" sounds like it would be overstuffed with savviness and humor, but the best director Mark Palansky can do is show her be scared and paranoid of joggers running her way. Furthermore, the film's satirical look at modern day's paparazzi overload lacks bite, and the love story concerning Penelope and Max is so undernourished as to seem like an afterthought. In fact, in the initial scene where Penelope meets and befriends Vespa-riding free spirit Annie (Reese Witherspoon), the two of them share such an instant chemistry and connection that the viewer wishes the central romance would be between them.
Christina Ricci (2007's "Black Snake Moan
") is underrated as an actress and a lot more natural and intuitive than some give her credit for. She makes Penelope her own and shows a lot of pluck, but what she doesn't do is rewrite the problematic screenplay from page one. As Max, James McAvoy (2007's "Atonement
") looks to be one snore away from REM sleep. Catherine O'Hara (2006's "For Your Consideration
"), usually a comic delight, is more grating than funny as mother Jessica, and the climactic arc her character finally experiences is undermined by a cheap gag. As father Frank, Richard E. Grant (2001's "Gosford Park
") makes the impression of a ghost on a mattress. As for Reese Witherspoon (2007's "Rendition
"), her supporting turn as Annie is so inconsequential that it seems to have been tacked on just to give the film's big-star producer an on-camera role.
With some fine-tuning and tweaking, "Penelope" might have been transformed into a winning little fable with a well-meaning message about accepting and loving oneself. The plot elements, however, are a mess, taking the generally flat characters and usually good actors on a journey so middling and slight that all the viewer can muster is indifference. The final moments, scored to the entrancing song "Hoppipolla" by Sigur Ros, are the only ones to transcend. Had what come before this been stronger on all fronts, and had the film given us a reason to actively care and root for Penelope and Max, the ending would be a note-perfect capper. As is, it only serves to remind of what could have been.