How? How can a movie with this premise and this cast be so mercilessly dull and stupid? The titular heroine of Penelope (Christina Ricci) was born with a pig snout for a nose, the result of an old curse placed on her family. To break the curse, she must win the love of a “blueblood” like herself. So Penelope’s overbearing mother (Catherine O’Hara) sends for dozens of potential suitors, all of whom run screaming from her hideous visage, crashing through windows. The problem is, Penelope isn’t hideous at all; Christina Ricci is actually rather cute in her prosthetic. So the movie seems off right from the start. If you’re going to make a fable about a woman learning to overcome her deformity, make sure she has a deformity to overcome.
Penelope seems to be set in some fairy-tale conflation of New York and London — half the cast is British, and not all of them bother to Americanize their accents. (The film was shot mostly in London.) People use rotary phones and typewriters, too, so I guess we’re supposed to take the introductory “Once upon a time” title card literally. It’s a whimsical fantasy, then, and it seems to be aimed straight at the hearts of impressionable teenage girls (who would probably rather see Juno again than see this). But it takes forever to get to the point, and our time until then is taken up with the usually dependable Catherine O’Hara obnoxiously playing to the rafters, and a pre-Atonement James McAvoy (Penelope has been on the shelf for at least two years) morosely tickling the ivories after Penelope has rejected him, and Peter Dinklage providing the only mild laughs as a one-eyed reporter who first wants to expose Penelope and then has a change of heart.
I was unsurprised to learn that the movie was written by Leslie Caveny, a writer and producer on Everybody Loves Raymond, and directed by first-timer Mark Palansky, who spent about a decade as an assistant on, and then second-unit director for, various Michael Bay productions. I’d like to think that the creative marriage of a sitcom writer and a Michael Bay protegé might produce a wonderful child, but Penelope is stillborn, even though Reese Witherspoon, in her first effort as a producer, midwifed it. (Witherspoon plays a small, highly extraneous role as Penelope’s new friend who makes deliveries on her winged motorcycle.) What on earth did Witherspoon see in this material?
The minute we lay eyes on James McAvoy, we know he’s going to be the one for Penelope — he’s not like all the other suitors, and he gets a teasing rhythm going with Ricci, who’s otherwise pretty stranded up there, never getting to use her gift for sarcasm or even any garden-variety smarts. Penelope is just pushed this way and that by fate. The movie is surprising in one regard only: I never thought I’d see a movie in which such supporting players as Richard E. Grant (the mighty Withnail himself!), Nick Frost, Russell Brand, and Lenny Henry — seasoned British comedians all; maybe Witherspoon watches BBC America a lot — are completely unfunny. Penelope is useful as an example of how the talents of many — and I include Witherspoon, who I hope has a shinier future as a producer — can be overridden by an untalented writer and director. It plays like a Lifetime TV movie made by people who love everything about Tim Burton’s work except that dark gothic stuff.