Add Christina Ricci to the list of people trying to make us feel better about ourselves. It’s no surprise, really — in the early 90s she was Hollywood’s go-to girl for playing the beautiful yet believable angst-ridden teenager. Now she’s back in director Mark Palansky’s “Penelope” as a pig-nosed beauty who doesn’t quite jive with society’s harsh standards. But for those celebrating the once-great teenage drama queen’s triumphant return, be forewarned: This is not “Now and Then,” and the chemistry between Penelope and her lover is nowhere near as satisfying as that between Casper and Kat.
Unfortunately, “Penelope” is full of bad clichés and undeveloped characters. Mysterious Max (whose real name, John, emerges only after Lemon, an inexplicably one-eyed tabloid reporter, has traced down his true ancestry) is a down-on-his-luck gambler with a predictable fixer-upper kind of charm. By accident, he joins a team plotting to photograph the hideous pig-nosed beast-woman, and to achieve his aim he must venture alone into the lion’s den. That is, pinstripe-clad, he becomes a suitor for an evening.
Yet when Max meets Penelope — or, to be more accurate, hears her voice through a one-way mirror — he can’t help but find her charming (oh, that Christina, so disarming, and just a little bit sketchy). It must be fate, because he picks up her favorite book from the family collection. Bam! The family’s huddled around the video surveillance camera, watching as Penelope and Max play chess through plate glass and fantasize about making future Penemaxelope babies.
Their romance progresses at lightning speed, and herein lies the film’s pitfall. It wouldn’t be all that frustrating from any other formulaic romantic comedy, but because of the film’s moral aspirations, it’s hard not to complain. Why, if not for beauty, is Max falling for Penelope within moments? Is he won over by her witty personality? Have they discussed the hidden heroine’s views on politics, religion or literature? Nope, but she does make Mr. Alcoholic sing “You Are My Sunshine” in a horrific attempt to guess his “true instrument.” Music, chess, books and a few clever comments here and there — these are the clichés of what defines interpersonal chemistry (see Facebook.com for further evidence). In nodding to these tropes (and keeping the plot clipping along), “Penelope” denies any potential for a connection that actually transcends superficial, physical attraction. This makes the message blatantly hypocritical, impossible to heed. So much for those true believers out there.
Moral purposes aside, Palansky’s film manages to entertain better than most romantic comedies due to a host of stellar supporting actors and an exceptional job by the costume and set designers. Reese Witherspoon, playing loudmouthed, spiky-haired Annie, is hilarious while rocking a leather jacket and romping around the city on her Vespa, showing her hopelessly clueless new friend a good time. Peter Dinklage as Lemon is a great tabloid-reporter-who-has-a-change-of-heart, and paired with representative snob Simon Woods makes for an amusing subplot as he courts the fickle currents of public opinion. As Penelope’s over-the-top parents, Catherine O’Hara and Richard Grant are so frustrating it’s almost satirical.
Penelope’s house is gloriously whimsical yet believably “blue-blood.” For one thing, the heroine has a super gnarly tree-swing in the middle of her bedroom that she runs to whenever she’s upset (said tree-swing also makes for a great montage of tree-swings-as-the-daughter-grows moments). Ricci’s brightly colored costumes add to the playful peculiarity of her character and make the Penelope persona Halloween-ready once she goes public. When added to mischievously directed camera shots, overtones of witchcraft and mysticism and a great scene with bubbles, the production effects certainly highlight “Penelope’s” good-humored intentions.
Yet even the most bighearted of ultimate conclusions (the only person who will really love us is ourselves!), “Penelope” feels rushed and the relationships unbelievable. Worse, Max loves her even more when her nose is made normal. Thus, it fails to deliver that true warm-and-fuzzy feeling. Oink.