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Penelope


By Jason Ferguson | Posted 2/27/2008

After sitting on the studio shelf for nearly two years, this modern-day fairy tale is finally hitting U.S. screens. What's surprising is that at no point during the many months it was dormant did it occur to anyone that Penelope's premise is fundamentally flawed. Christina Ricci stars as the titular character, who bears the brunt of a curse placed on her old-money family many generations ago. Said curse takes the form of a pig snout in place of her nose, and, apparently, the curse can only be broken if she marries someone from an equally well-to-do, old-money family. Penelope's histrionic mom (played with scene-chewing hilarity by Catherine O'Hara) desires nothing more than to rescue her daughter's face--and her family's reputation--from the curse, and thus goes about bringing in a steady stream of potential suitors. All of whom run screaming in terror from the sight of this pig-faced monstrosity.

Here's the problem: We're talking about Christina Ricci, who--even with a snout on her face--is far from looking like the kind of woman who would send anyone running. Plus, the snout is sort of adorable. When the predictably good-hearted loser played by James McAvoy finally arrives at the house and, of course, falls blindly for Penelope, you're supposed to commend his ability to see past her looks. But, again, this is the woman who made an iron chain and a Confederate flag T-shirt look like aphrodisiacal lingerie in Black Snake Moan. McAvoy isn't exactly a hero.

This required suspension of disbelief isn't Penelope's biggest problem, though. Despite its sweet, positive self-image story line, it's hamstrung by its lackluster attempts at evoking magical inspiration. The set treatments are cheap and claustrophobic, and, with the exception of O'Hara's aforementioned shrieking, all of the performances are muted to the point of being somnolent. Ricci looks distracted, while McAvoy appears to be there just for shits and giggles. The laughs are few and far between, and the characters are too thinly developed for you to build any real attachment to. A fairy tale needs to feel like a fairy tale, and though the story line keeps things appropriately simple, there isn't enough of a sense of the fantastic to give Penelope the ethereality it needs to be effective.

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