Friday, February 29, 2008

"Penelope" -- * * *

Though forgettable it may be, "Penelope" is a sweet, little confection that provides the sort of fluffy entertainment that isn't currently being offered at the multiplex (at least until next week, when "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" opens). It'll be interesting to see if its pig-snout concept keeps audiences away, but if it does, it'll be shame. A charming, enjoyable modern-day fairy tale, there's not a mean bone in this movie's body, and I can't quite understand why it's sat on the shelf for a year and a half after playing at the Toronto Film Festival in the fall of 2006 (much like "Bonneville" and "Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show"). In this extremely crowded movie weekend, this is the only one I would qualify in the "worth seeing" category.

Opening with a "Once Upon a Time..." insert card, "Penelope" announces its fairy tale intention right off the bat, following it up with a pre-credit sequence explaining the back story of our title character's predicament. Penelope (Christina Ricci) has been "blessed" with a pig snout rather than a human nose, due to a curse placed on her family from a witch many years ago. Horrified initially, though loving her in their own way, Penelope's pseudo-celebrity parents (Catherine O'Hara and Richard E. Grant) fake her death and keep her locked in the house, hidden from the public eye. Unable to be granted a human nose unless she marries a blue-blood, Penelope's parents seek suitor after suitor, most of whom throw themselves out the window after catching a glimpse at the aforementioned girl.

A humiliated suitor (Simon Woods) and a paparazzi (the always fun-to-watch Peter Dinklage) half-blinded by Penelope's mother, seek out a pathetic gambler Max (James McAvoy) to gain entry into the estate and snap a shot for them of Penelope's face in full-view. It doesn't work out. Max ends up falling for Penelope and rejecting her for unknown reasons. After this brief taste of happiness, Penelope decides to break free of her mansion, exploring the world for the first time (snout hidden away by a scarf, of course).

Though possibly credited to its 83-minute running time, "Penelope" has a breezy, light feel that moves the strong along fairly quickly and doesn't really have any excess fat. It's also consistently clever and smile-inducing without making a spectacle of its dialogue ("Geez, Banana..."). Mostly thanks to the direction, the movie wrings laughs out of little jokes like Penelope's family gathering around the monitors of her potential woo-ers with chips, popcorn, champagne and ice cream. The film also smartly handles its required fairy tale elements; at movie's end, the "moral" or message is literally spelled out, but it gets away with it in context. On top of everything, it's a movie you can take your kids to; except for one extremely mild boner joke/one-liner, the proceedings are extremely PG.

The movie's not perfect, however. Some of its questionable jokes (at one point, a newspaper headline reads "Pig Latin banned from schools"-- whuh?) aren't really substantially problematic; my one real issue with "Penelope" is the same one I had with John Cameron Mitchell's otherwise terrific "Shortbus:" it doesn't go far enough in testing people's tolerance levels. While, sure, that film was sexually explicity, all its cast members were very attractive and all the sexual acts performed were at least familiar to anyone with a healthy sex life. To really exemplify its theme about tolerance and broad-sweeping universality, we should have seen some fucked up shit, as well as some not-so-attractive people bumping uglies.

Similarly, "Penelope" should have made its titular character actually as ugly as the characters' reactions would indicate. When we first see Penelope, complete with snout, a woman near me loudly whispered "Oh that's not so bad!" Exactly, loud lady. This is the same Christina Ricci who sexily slutted it up in last year's "Black Snake Moan;" one little adorable pig nose ain't going to change that. If "Penelope" really wanted to say something about inner beauty, it might have helped if the the girl underneath wasn't so beautiful. This wasn't enough to keep me from enjoying the movie, but it crossed my mind whenever the movie shows us Ricci with the snout.

Ricci is sweet and endearing as our title character, even if she's not given very much to work with. I mentioned "Black Snake Moan" before and if you look at her performance in that film and then this one, it's startling the extent of the (often taken for granted) actress's range. Though she's playing a thinly written fairy tale archetype, we actually believe Penelope's alternating sense of wonderment and loneliness, especially in scenes where she literally has to act only with her eyes. I really genuinely and generally love James McAvoy, so I'll just say (a) this may be the least aesthetically appealing he's been in a movie and (b) his very affected American accent doesn't quite fly and lends all his dialogue a vaguely annoying smartass cockiness. Not everyone can be aces all the time, and I wish him all the best next time out. His performance in "Atonement" more than gives him enough leeway for one or two misses.

O'Hara, unsurprisingly, gives the best performance on display here. Not only are her staple shrieking hysterics hilarious, she plays up both sides of the character, illuminating for us exactly who his woman is. She is shallow in many ways, and largely just concerned about her family's reputation, but she makes us understand why, and also really cares about her daughter's happiness and well-being. O'Hara does a wonderful job getting all that across to us, delivering significantly more here than seems to have been on the page.

I'll not pretend "Penelope" is particularly weighty, or will linger especially long in the memory, but I'll take endearingly frivolous filmmaking that genuinely charms over the bulk of what we've been getting lately any day. Reese Witherspoon (who also appears in a few scenes as a Vespa-riding bar patron) apparently believe in this project enough to serve as a producer, but I'm sure the leading role was offered to her at some point. Perhaps Ricci was just more willing to strap on the pig nose than Miss Perfect Blond Oscar winner, but either way, the intent is what counts. A bit of fluff that doesn't pander, "Penelope" diverts in a cuter manner than most.


Blogger Nayana Anthony said...

meh... I was underwhelmed. Good review, though.

11:33 PM  
Blogger bruce said...

I think I read an interview where the original pig nose was going to be much uglier but Christina Ricci asked it to be a little less grotesque. Either way it doesn't matter, the movie was a wonderful escape from my mundane life. I was charmed by the ending scene when Sigur Ros started playing and the happy ending was unraveling before my eyes.

8:50 AM  

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