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Stars rise above script

Mediocre E. Scissorhands-like story is saved by wonderful acting performances.

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Penelope Wilhern has a pig nose.  Let’s just get that out in the open straightaway.  It was a birth defect caused by a family curse that cannot be surgically fixed because the carotid artery runs through it, or some such.  Still with me? 

Penelope (Christina Ricci) is an adult now, and after having lived a shuttered life inside a fancifully decorated wing inside the family manse, she is feeling restless.  The cause of her restlessness is not so much that she’s never been outdoors, but that her mother is now trying to find her a husband, to break the curse, of course. 

The great Catherine O’Hara plays Jessica, the mother who is at once loving toward and repulsed by her pig-faced offspring.  She can’t get past the defect to see her child’s inner beauty, and so neither can Penelope.  The thing is, Penelope is eminently likable, if not lovable, and she isn’t really all that repulsive.  Dare I say it: She’s kind of cute.  But I am not a gold-digging, blueblood suitor in this film.  And that’s a good thing because they all end up screaming in terror and hurtling themselves through a second-story window upon seeing the “horror” behind the scarf. 

“Penelope” marks the directorial debut of Mark Palansky, whose obvious influence here is Tim Burton.  This film includes scenes that specifically recall Burton’s “Big Fish,” but mostly it evokes “Edward Scissorhands” — a far superior film than “Penelope.”  But the two are stylistically similar and even share the moral lesson of learning how to be comfortable in one’s own skin. 

What bumps the derivative “Penelope” up from a two-star, wait-for-video rating is the acting ensemble.  Give casting director Susie Figgis a round of applause.  And Palansky while you’re at it, because he was able to get these actors to rise above the so-so script. 

Is there any better character actor working today than Peter Dinklage?  There is such great skill in what he does, not the least of which is that he makes you not even notice that he’s only 4 feet tall, if that.  Here he plays a one-eyed paparazzi-type reporter who’s been on Penelope’s trail for years when he hires Max, a down-and-out trust-funder, to infiltrate the Wilhern estate. 

James McAvoy, hot off the much-lauded “Atonement,” not to mention last year’s “The Last King of Scotland” (for which he was much-overlooked), plays Max, who in trying to make a buck falls for the unseen Penelope.  McAvoy and Ricci’s scenes where Max and Penelope get to know each other — he’s in the family library, she’s behind the mirror on the wall — are the best in the film.  There is nothing more sublime onscreen than witnessing romance in its early stages, especially if portrayed with intelligence and wit. 

And then there’s Reese Witherspoon — a bona fide A-lister — in a supporting role as Penelope’s first real friend.  Witherspoon likely took the smaller role because she’s also one of the film’s producers.  No matter.  She blends in beautifully, taking care to step back enough so as not to hog (no pun intended) the spotlight from Ricci. 

When Penelope finally breaks free from the confines of her foreboding, gated estate, we see the Burtonesque elements of the film pop in the visuals, with accentuated color, lighting and scenery in the cityscape.  Is it in London, New York, Boston, Vienna?  You can’t really tell.  It appears to be an Ameri-Euro hybrid kind of place.  The newspaper is simply called “The Daily.” 

Penelope begins to learn about the world, which liberates her.  She is able to finally see herself from a fresh perspective and also change her public perception — all on her own terms.  Someone in the film says, “It’s not the power of the curse; it’s the power you give the curse.”  A trite sentiment, perhaps — something that also could be said for the whole film.  But the whimsy that sets this fable apart is what should be considered if you’re trying to decide which date movie to choose this weekend. 


Three Stars

Stars: Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Reese Witherspoon and Catherine O’Hara

Director: Mark Palansky

Rated: Rated PG for thematic elements, some innuendo and language.

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