It is frequently said, by critics, of the romantic comedies that Hollywood churns out that “if you’ve ever seen a movie before, you know exactly what’s going to happen.” In the case of PENELOPE, one doesn’t even need to have seen celluloid projected upon screen.
As the opening phrase “Once upon a time” suggests, anyone who has ever heard a fairy tale knows what direction the story will take, though there is admittedly no evil step-parent in this case, and the only wicked witch is but a minor player who long ago placed a curse upon the Wilhern family that the next girl child born to them would have the face of a pig, until such time as one of her own kind could love her for who she is.
The Wilhern family live in a big country estate that is also somehow smack-dab in the middle of a city whose central core looks like New York, with outskirts cribbed from both London and the movie MOULIN ROUGE. Motor-scooters exist in this world, as do spy cameras and two way mirrors; yet reporters bang away on manual typewriters, and there is clearly no Internet, for if there were, pig-nosed Penelope (Christina Ricci) would have zero problem finding a man – there are undoubtedly porcine fetishists out there.
And they will surely beat off to this movie for ever and ever (finally, for them, something besides the Muppet Movies).
Plastic surgery exists in this whimsical universe, but it seems that the curse has also rerouted the carotid artery through Penelope’s nose, making cuts of any kind overly perilous. No reason is given why her pointy pig ears can’t be trimmed, but maybe the lungs worked their way up there somehow. But here’s the thing – even with a pig nose and pointy ears, Ricci’s totally attractive (and even if she weren’t, I know tons of guys who care only about bods rather than faces, and there’s no indication Penelope has a curly tail or anything). Let me just say this: Ricci with a pig nose is still far more alluring than Nicole Kidman with a Virginia Woolf nose.
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But of course the curse is a metaphor, and part of the point is the degree to which some people overreact and some don’t. It’s a pretty good one, too. Speaking from personal experience, when one experiences a constant flow of rejection on the dating scene, one that continues for years at a time, it’s easy to feel somehow cursed, helpless in the fact that you feel like you must be repellent. And it’s arguable that movie messages tend to err too greatly on the side of self-confidence; it’s more often up to sitcoms to dare suggest that compromise, rather than being oneself at all times, might be a crucial skill too. When we meet Penelope as an adult (following a narrated recap of childhood), she’s still occasionally allowing herself to get her hopes up for each new suitor, bribed by the family in hopes of breaking the curse, but when Maxwell Campion (James McEvoy) turns out to be both a spy in the employ of a tabloid reporter (Peter Dinklage) and unwilling to marry Penelope when push comes to shove, that’s the last straw. Penelope runs away into the big ol’ outside world.
Some of the imagery may seem quite English, yet English actors faking American accents abound – Richard E. Grant, Nick Frost, and McAvoy being the most notable. Apparently they didn’t get the memo about being true to themselves. Or maybe the point is that they aren’t. Meanwhile, as a contrast to Penelope, we get Reese Witherspoon looking as glamorous as usual, yet playing a motor-mouthed biker whom many guys would get tired of in an instant despite her ostensible hotness. Witherspoon also produced; it’s nice when the beautiful people lecture us about how awesome ugly people are, isn’t it?
Overall, though, PENELOPE is an enjoyable piece of fluff, ably anchored by Ricci in a full 180 from the confident freak that was Wednesday Addams back in the day. Insecure people are going to love this movie, so it’s kind of too bad that most people I’ve talked to haven’t even heard of it, let alone know it’s in theaters now.
It’s probably also worth mentioning that a couple of guys in the audience were snoring loudly by the end. But it was after midnight, and like me they had probably had some beers first. Lightweights.