Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Penelope - Fun but missing one twist

Penelope begins "once upon a time", ends with a first grader explaining the moral of the story and fills the time in between with the reasonably engaging tale of Penelope (Christina Ricci), a rich girl born with a pig nose thanks to an old family curse. The curse comes with a cure, only undying love from "one of her own kind" will change Penelope's snout into a human nose. Plastic surgery is out due to a pesky arterial complication, so Mom (Catherine O'Hara) teaches Penelope that she is not her true self and seizes upon this legendary cure as the core of Penelope's life. Mom isolates Penelope from the world, lines up battalions of blue blooded potential beaus with aid from a professional matchmaker, then exposes the potential beaus to Penelope - triggering panic, flight and then capture by the mysterious butler, who somehow obtains a secrecy agreement from each staggered suitor. Finally one blue blood escapes and talks to the press, embarrassing himself and his wealthy family, rearrousing the interest of a long suffering reporter (Peter Dinklage) and triggering a series of changes in Penelope's life. Her last arranged beau, James McAvoy, is a compulsive gambler with an agenda of his own, but their meeting produces a spark, followed by a new level of frustration that gets Penelope out of the house where she's befriended by Annie (Reese Witherspoon). The plot then twists its way to an ending in which Penelope learns that accepting herself is the key to happiness.

Penelope's web site bills the movie as the anti-Barbie, but fear not plastic surgeons, the movie announces its moral, but supports it halfheartedly. Penelope may run behind Shrek and The Truth About Cats and Dogs as the anti-Barbie, but it is well-played fun. The gags built around Penelope's snout generally work, although an uglier, piggier nose would improve them. Director Mark Palansky knows when to back away from the snout and tell the story. Ricci stays believable in a tough role. Catherine O'Hara is comedically adept as the mom, but the closest Penelope comes to breaking ground on the anti-Barbie front is the mother, torn between pushing her daughter to reach her human nosed potential and accepting her as her pig nosed self - even if this means letting her daughter give up. O'Hara is consistently controlling, rebounding in the blink of an eye from disappointments that crush Penolope, always ready with the next plan to make a match with one of her own kind. A more nuanced mom would probably be less funny, but might offer an interesting perspective on the theme.

Co-producer Witherspoon has a blast playing a wacky Vespa jockey who tutors Penelope on the subject of all things real world and she's completely contagious. Witherspoon was so much fun I found myself hoping she would turn out to be a princess in exile (or maybe just "one of Penolope's kind" on a gender based alternate interpretation) who would lift Penelope's curse with a lesbian romance.

No comments: