Monday, May 19, 2008


Mark Palansky's Penelope (2006) is a combination of three different formulas: (1) the Ancient Curse, (2) the Young Woman Going Out into the World, and (3) the Young Woman Who Might Marry the Wrong Man if She Doesn't Patch Things Up With James McAvoy.

Formula number one: A long time ago some entirely arbitrary events took place with the end result that Penelope (Christina Ricci) has a pig nose in the present. The curse will only be broken if one of her own kind (old money, blue blood) falls in love with her. Penelope's mother (Catherine O'Hara) hires a matchmaker to find some one who meets that criteria, but most of the applicants are so horrified by Penelope's appearance that they throw themselves out the nearest window.

Penelope's parents have kept her in Mormon-like seclusion for the first twenty-five years of her life to keep her existence a secret, even going so far as to fake her death at a young age. Penelope's mother has marriage applicants sign a non-disclosure deal to keep word from getting out, but one applicant, Edward Humphrey Vanderman III (Simon Woods), manages to get away before the family butler can tackle him. When Edward goes to the police, they think he's insane, but Lemon (Peter Dinklage)--a reporter who lost an eye twenty years earlier trying to get a photo of Penelope--believes him. They hire Johnny (McAvoy), a down-and-out blue blood, to pose as an applicant in order to snap a picture.

Formula number two: Penelope and Johnny fall in love (natch), but he doesn't marry her for reasons revealed only later. Fearing the curse may never be broken, Penelope grabs her mother's credit card and walks out the back door. She wears a scarf to cover her nose.

This part of the film is a missed opportunity. There's a good scene in which Penelope checks into a hotel, but mostly her freedom consists of sitting in a British pub Johnny recommended and sipping beer through a straw.

Formula number three: For reasons too convoluted to explain here, Edward proposes to Penelope and she accepts. I won't reveal whether Penelope chooses the rich jerk or the guy with the five o'clock shadow. You'll just have to see the film for youself.

I think the movie Penelope wants to be is Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001), in which everything depended on the heroine's shy personality. Here, the entire film hinges on plot twists that are essentially arbitrary.

The word for this movie is precious. Maybe if the film really dealt with what it would be like to go through life with a pig nose, it would be too sad to market as a romantic comedy.

It's unfortunate that the film is opening in South Korea only a few weeks after the arrest of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who held his daughter prisoner in his basement for twenty-four years. Despite her years in capitivity, Penelope isn't weird or angry but blandly well-adjusted.

Penelope is not a total catastrophy. O'Hara has some funny scenes as the mother, McAvoy is surprisingly good as the romantic lead, and Dinklage is such a fine actor it's a pleasure to see him in almost anything. It's too bad the material doesn't live up to the actors.

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