Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Movie Log: Penelope

Penelope was playing on my flight back from San Francisco last week. I never watch movies on planes -- at least not on those tiny little screens overhead three rows forward -- so I just looked at it now and then, decided it looked interested, and stuck it onto the Netflix queue when I got home. The Wife and I watched it a week ago.

It's an attempt at an original fable, and is mostly successful, though it doesn't quite get the level of diction right. It's set in a deliberately confusing setting -- one-half London, one-half vaguely American, and mostly seeming like the early 1960s.

Christina Ricci is the titular character, the first girl born in a "blue-blood" family in about a hundred years and thus the recipient of a curse laid upon her great-grandfather by a local witch. The curse is that she looks like a pig -- well, actually, she looks like Christina Ricci with a small, low-key, vaguely un-pretty prosthetic nose. Because of this, her parents (Catherine O'Hara and Richard E. Grant) have kept her confined to the family home since birth. The curse will be lifted when she's married to a "blue-blood" man and thus accepted by her kind, so there's a parade of young men who all dive through a window when they first see Penelope.

One of these young men is Edward Humphrey Vanderman III (Simon Woods), who, through a complicated but not interesting series of events, comes to team up with raffish reporter Lemon (Peter Dinklage) to take and publish a picture of Penelope to salvage both of their reputations. They enlist gambling addict and general ne'er-do-well Max (James McAvoy) to charm Penelope and get her picture, but things don't go as planned.

Penelope generally meets her suitors via a one-way mirror; she stays in her multi-level Hollywood-villain's-lair bedroom while the young men emote in a very tasteful drawing room until she emerges from behind a bookcase to scare them away. But Max can't get her to come out over the course of several visits.

Eventually, Penelope runs away from her gilded cage to see the real world -- Max mentioned the incredibly banal worldly trifecta of a pub, street vendors, and "the park," which Penelope latches on to. She meets the inevitable "free spirit," Annie (played by producer Reese Witherspoon), eventually reveals herself, and becomes a media sensation.

There's a wedding at the ending, as all modern fables about women think they must have, and it goes reasonably well -- the message is also exceptionally modern, but it's still a fine message.

Penelope generally does pretty well -- it's a C+ / B- movie. Nothing at all is wrong with it, but the "fable" aspect makes chunks of the background unnecessarily hazy, and the dialogue isn't sharp enough to make up for it. (I have a suspicion that this, like many fables, was turned into that form because the writer thought it would be easier than dealing more directly with the real world.)

One example of the problems with word choice is that word "blue-blood." It's used exclusively to mean "aristocratic" or "rich" or "upper crust" or "ruling class" or whatever -- it's the one word used, though not explained, to describe Penelope and her class. We're supposed to assume that some kind of aristocracy is meant, but we don't know exactly what kind. A lot of Penelope is like that -- words are used bluntly, because they're good enough. A strong fable is like a poem -- the words have to be exactly right to make it all work.

So Penelope is a pleasant movie that's more or less a romantic comedy -- it's funny at times, never overly dramatic, and Max and Penelope do have a connection -- and one which I expect quite a number of young females will like. And if it makes some of them think their own noses are gorgeous by comparison -- and thus stop some pointless cosmetic surgery among some different blue-bloods -- it'll be a good thing

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