Saturday, February 02, 2008

PENELOPE - what a mess!

PENELOPE is a deeply derivative movie that snatches the look and feel of EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and AMELIE and splices them with the post-modern fairy-tale vibe of SHREK and ENCHANTED. There's so much going on with the plot I'm not entirely convinced the film-makers are in control of it. All I can say is that they make creative decisions that are flawed at every turn, thus frittering away a talented cast.

Penelope is a rich young woman cursed with a pig's snout rather than a noise. She'll regain her beauty when "one of her own kind accepts her for who she is". So her parents hire a match-maker to audition a bunch of blue-bloods to a blind-date with a difference. One such is a superificial preppie who runs screaming, and then teams up with a paparazzo to bring Penelope down. Another candidate is a down-at-heel but warm-hearted drifter. Penelope will venture into the world and find her true love (no prizes for guessing). And yes, this being Hollywood, there is a spunky side-kick with a quirky hair-cut and good intentions.

The movie is conventional enough and had they stuck to their guns the film-makers might have produced a decent enough romantic-comedy. After all, Christina Ricci and James McAvoy are charming as the star-crossed lovers. But the film-makers fail at every hurdle. The production design is a rag-bag of London and New York exteriors and the actors accents vary wildly too. All of this is highly distracting for the viewer. I just wished they'd settled for one or the other or gone for a non-specific fairy-tale land somewhere in between. As it is, we have James McAvoy in a broad US accent bumming round Southwark and Lenny Henry turning up as a rozzer with a Brummie accent to question Yank Catherine O'Hara!

The film-makers also exhibit a lack of faith in their audience in how they choose to depict Penelope's curse. It's intrinsic to the story that Penelope look ugly. But then again, they need to make her sympathetic and the movie marketable! So they give Christina Ricci the smallest, cutest little snout and compensate with falsh eyelashes, tousled hair and cute clothes. Indeed, snout aside, this may be the prettiest Ricci has ever looked on film!

Maybe the biggest problem is the film's uneven tone. Director Mark Palansky directs half of it as a very broad comedy, with elements of slapstick. Catherine O'Hara falls over in shock and Simon Woods, last seen as Caesar Augustus in HBO's Rome, puts a lot of physical comedy into his role as the preppie suitor. (Actually he's rather good in a comic role!) On the other hand, Palansky wants us to take PENELOPE seriously as a coming-of-age film with real heart. So Peter Dinklage gives a remarkably nuanced reporter as the sleazy paparazzo having second thoughts. Ricci, McAvoy and Witherspoon also play it fairly straight.

What with the shifting geography and shifting tone, I felt all at sea watching this film. There were flashes of wonder - and a few laugh-out-loud moments but these did not compensate for the general mayhem and one of the most excrucitiatingly embarassing first-kisses on film. The result is a movie that is frustrating to watch: a total mess, and a waste of a talented cast.

PENELOPE played Toronto 2006 and has since sat on the shelf. It played Russia and Ukraine last August and is currently on release in the UK. It opens in the US on February 29th, France on April 9th, the Netherlands on April 24th and Belgium on April 30th.

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