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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

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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MPAA: rated PG for thematic elements, some innuendo and language

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
  • Yeah, I wasn’t a fan.

  • Its actually a good movie and once the positive word of mouth spreads, it will likely be too late for its theatrical gross, but will work toward …

  • MaryAnn

    No, “actually” it’s just that “you believe” it’s a good movie. Which is great for you, but that doesn’t make it objectively true. Bad or indifferent word of mouth will spread among those who don’t think the movie is all that great.

  • Yaz

    I enjoyed the movie, as I was fully expecting a fairytale. I think many people were expecting a little more realism. The ending was a bit of a cheat, but I can’t think of a better way to have done it, other than to not break the curse at all. Otherwise, any other happy ending would have negated the moral of the story. (Don’t judge a book by its cover, Beauty is only skin deep, etc., etc.)

  • Ariel

    Personally, I left the movie utterly disgusted by both of Penelope’s parents. It’s very easy to say the mother is just trying to do the best for Penelope, but when the curse is broken I realized that her mother was truly atrocious, and apparently her father as well.

  • MaryAnn

    Yeah, but you can’t take this as serious drama. Sure, the mother is atrocious, but in a fairy-tale wicked-notstepmother kind of way.

    ** SPOILER **

    When I say in my review that it seems like the curse should have been broken long ago, I meant that it seems like her father accepted her the way she was — at least, he acted as if he did. I suppose the movie could be suggesting that he secretly was revolted by her too, but then he should have at least given a hint earlier on that that’s how he felt.

  • Yaz

    I don’t think her father accepting her could have broken the curse. I think it had to be her.

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