Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
There are several theories floating around the Internet purporting to explain why Penelope is finally being released now. It did, after all, make its debut at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival.
My favorite explanation which is my own invention is that the money folks behind Penelope saw Atonement coming and expected James McAvoy to break out as a huge star. They probably figured, "Hey, why not hold on to this little romantic comedy fairy tale thingie till the world is swooning over McAvoy, and we'll get rich when they discover he's in this, too?"
If only it was that easy. McAvoy is unaffectedly charming here, but maybe it would have been better to let the film slip in and out of theaters earlier. It's a nice enough movie and Christina Ricci is quirky and captivating as McAvoy's leading lady; the two of them even share a bit of romantic chemistry. But, the magic that this modern fable wants you to believe in never quite catches fire. You can see it smoldering; you just can't pretend that those little sparks are an inferno.
The fairy tale is basically Beauty and the Beast with the girl as the beast. Only Ricci is actually kind of cute with her little piggy snout, the result of a curse placed on her family. It's a curse that can be broken only if someone can learn to love her as she is. This has her mother (Catherine O'Hara) in a tizzy trying to find a suitor who can endure her "ugly" daughter. I know it's meant to be funny, but it's hard to imagine a man who wouldn't find this incarnation of Ricci adorable, even with the porky schnoz.
Then comes McAvoy's down-on-his-luck Max, who has gambled away his fortune and could use the dowry that Penelope's parents are offering. So, what do ya know, he actually falls for her, 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. It tries to evoke the sweet sadness of Edward Scissorhands and along the way it creates its own cool pseudo-1970s alternate reality. Then there is the lovable cast, which also includes Peter Dinklage as a reporter and Richard E. Grant as Penelope's dad. Even the obvious CGI smoothing of Ricci's prosthetic snout is forgivable.
What isn't forgivable is that there's just not enough magic, and the magic there just isn't quite the right kind. I don't want to spoil too much, because fans of Ricci and McAvoy will want to see this, but the way the curse is finally broken feels like a cheat. It seems like it would have happened long ago if that's the way it could have gone down, because someone else could have broken it. This realization, unfortunately, breaks the magic right at the moment when it should have been strongest indeed.