Penelope (review)

Hogging Magic

There are a bunch of theories floating around the fanboy — and fangirl — Internet purporting to explain why Penelope is only getting released in theaters now. It did, after all, make its debut all the way back at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, and was originally scheduled to be released almost a year ago, in April 2007. And then it was rescheduled for release in Summer 2007. Which didn’t happen. And now here it is, finally and at last. My own favorite explanation — which is my invention and has nothing to recommend it but the ring of truth — is that the money folks behind Penelope saw Atonement barreling down on us, and expected James McAvoy to finally break out as a huge star with that film, and they figured, “Hey, why not hold this slight little romantic comedy fairy tale thingie till after half the world is swooning over this Scottish guy, and then we’ll be rolling in all sorts of dough when they discover he’s in this, too?”
Would that it were that easy. Oh, McAvoy is as unaffectedly charming here as he is an unforced bundle of coiled rage in Atonement, but maybe it would have been better to let this one slip in and out of theaters last summer on its way to what is sure to be a healthy run on home video. Because it’s a nice enough little movie, and McAvoy’s leading lady, Christian Ricci, is her own kind of quirky-captivating, as she always is. And the two of them even share a fair bit of romantic chemistry. But the magic that this modern fable wants you to believe it is bursting with never quite catches fire. You can see it smoldering there in the hearth, just desperately begging you to pretend that those little sparks are a roaring inferno. But you can’t, much as you’d wish it were so.

It’s Beauty and the Beast with the girl as the beast, which I’ve been dying to see for years now — turnabout’s fair play, and don’t women already put up with blokes who’re less than Prince Charming in the name of love in real life already, and way more often than men do? Except Ricci’s (Black Snake Moan, Monster) old-money daughter is actually kind of cute with her little piggy snout, the result of a curse placed on her blueblood family long ago. The curse’ll be broken if someone of her own kind, a blueblood, can learn to love her as she is, which has had her mother — played by the underappreciated Catherine O’Hara (Over the Hedge, Chicken Little) — in a tizzy, parading potential aristocratic suitors through a gauntlet, trying to find that one who can endure her “ugly” daughter Penelope. I know it’s meant to be funny, but it’s hard to imagine any man who wouldn’t find this incarnation of Ricci adorable, even with the porky schnoze.

And then comes McAvoy’s (Becoming Jane, The Last King of Scotland) down-on-his-luck Max, who’s gambled away the family fortune, and could really use the dowry Penelope’s parents are offering. And hot damn if he doesn’t actually fall for her — for she’s smart and funny as well as cute — until his own secrets become a barrier between them…

I really would love to be unequivocally enthusiastic about this flick, the feature debut from director Mark Palansky and TV writer Leslie Caveny. Sure, it’s almost painfully trying to evoke the sweet sadness of Edward Scissorhands, but along the way it creates its own kind of pseudo-1970s alternate reality, one with no cell phones and only typewriters for nosy newspaper reporters to pound out their gossipy, who’s-the-pig-face-girl? screeds on. I love the fantastical intersection of New York and London that Penelope and Max live in, a city of cosy pubs and towering skyscrapers, of aristocrats with American accents and snooty British butlers. Ya gotta, well, love the gotta-love-’em cast, which also includes Peter Dinklage (Death at a Funeral, Find Me Guilty) as one of those nosy reporters, Richard E. Grant (Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride) as Penelope’s dad, and Reese Witherspoon (Rendition, Walk the Line) as a pal to Penelope. (Fans of the cult BBC science fiction series Torchwood will recognize Burn Gorman, aka Owen Harper, in a small role.) Even the obvious CGI smoothing of Ricci’s prosthetic snout is forgivable.

What isn’t forgivable — though it’s probably no one’s fault, just an example of the fickle muses of cinema passing this one by when they were sprinkling their ineffably enchanted stardust around — is that there’s just not enough magic, and what there is isn’t quite the right kind. I don’t want to spoil too much, because fans of Ricci and McAvoy will want to check this out, but the way the curse gets broken — c’mon, you knew it would — feels like a cheat. It feels like if that’s the way it could have gone down, it would have happened long ago, because, well, there is one other special someone around who could have broken it. Which breaks the magic for us right at the moment when it should have been strongest indeed.

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