Directed by Mark Palansky. Starring Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Catherine O’Hara, Reese Witherspoon, Peter Dinklage, Richard E. Grant, Simon Woods, Ronni Ancona. (2008, PG, 102 min.)
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Feb. 29, 2008
Whatever else might be said about sitcom writer Leslie Caveny’s feature-screenplay debut, Penelope, it can’t be argued that it doesn’t feature one of the oddest courtship sequences in movie history. Penelope (Ricci) and her suitor, Max (McAvoy), pitch woo and conduct their early lovemaking in two separate rooms with a one-way mirror between them, as if she were a robbery victim falling in love with a possible culprit standing in a police lineup. Unfortunately for these two young would-be lovers, no crime has been committed. The reason that mirror separates them is because Penelope has a pig’s snout instead of a nose, the result of an age-old curse placed on her blue-blood family by an angry witch. Legend has it that until Penelope finds “true love with one of her own kind,” she’ll continue to be half woman, half pig. So she and her upper-class crush flirt through a mirror. They talk, and they play chess, and they bat their eyelashes; he even goes so far as to sit in with a full New Orleans jazz band and serenade her (which, to be honest, didn’t make any sense to me at all), but it doesn’t matter. As soon as she comes out from behind that glass and he sees her face, he’s going to run for the door like all the other dowry seekers who came before him, leaving poor Penelope alone with her thoughts, her self-loathing, and her mother (O’Hara), who has raised meddlesome matchmaking to a neurotic art. To be fair, Penelope isn’t a bad movie. It isn’t a particularly good one, either, but for viewers who are susceptible to modern-day fairy tales that are heavy on whimsy, sweeping soundtracks, and easily digestible life lessons about the importance of inner beauty, I can see how it might be seductive. The problem, however, is that entire plot strands crop up from out of nowhere only to disappear without explanation, never to be heard from again. It’s as if Caveny had so many ideas that she simply couldn’t bear to leave any of them crumpled up on her office floor. Witherspoon (who is also one of the film’s producers) pops in for a hot second as Penelope’s newfound, tough-talking best friend and then is gone again. Max falls for Penelope and then runs away and then returns again, only to reject her and disappear again, before showing up 15 minutes later, this time with a burning desire to rejoin the rock band we never knew he was in. One minute the residents of a nearby city are living in fear of the “pig-girl”; the next she’s the girl everyone wants to be around. Then they’re all gone again, leaving unresolved questions about the nature of friendship and celebrity worship lingering in the breeze. It’s enough to drive viewers into a whiplashed panic, which is one thing a family-friendly fairy tale probably shouldn’t do.