blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Penelope (2006, Mark Palansky), the family-friendly version

Between film festival premiere and eventual U.S. release, Penelope went from 104 minutes to just under ninety, apparently to get a family-friendly PG release, which makes sense since it’s based on a kids’ book. Except it’s not. Leslie Caveny’s screenplay is an original, meaning some of the film’s problems no longer have reasonable excuses.

Penelope is about twenty-five-year-old Christina Ricci. She’s a blue blood who lives in a fairy tale land. And she has the nose of a pig. Her ancestor threw over his pregnant maid girlfriend hundreds of years ago and married rich. The girlfriend killed herself and her mom, the town witch, cursed Ricci’s family. It just took hundreds of years for the curse to go active—the first female born will have “the face of a pig” until “one of her own kind” loves her.

Ricci’s parents are Catherine O’Hara and Richard E. Grant. Grant’s playing an American. Most of the Brits play Americans. Penelope’s urban fairytale land takes place in a British Manhattan. Maybe it’s in the universe where the U.S. lost the revolution and the American elite suck up to the British–much better movie.

Sadly, O’Hara’s not playing a Brit. It’d be hilarious. She’s the overbearing mom who wants Ricci to get married so she no longer has a pig’s face. Except Ricci doesn’t have a pig’s face, she has a pig’s nose–and pig-ish ears. We never see the ears. Will Ricci break the curse with true love from pauper James McAvoy or moneyed love with loathsome Simon Wood? Will it even matter?

Part of the gag is anytime a prospective bachelor meets Ricci, upon seeing her face, he runs away. The only one not to run is McAvoy, first because he doesn’t see her, then because he’s… transfixed. I assumed Penelope was based on a kids’ book because the only way the story makes sense is if, in the book, Ricci’s actually got a pig face. Then the story’s about some dude loving her for the real her, which has the added texture of Ricci and O’Hara’s most frequent repeat conversation being about how Ricci isn’t really herself until she loses the nose.

Except. It’s just a big, pushed-up nose. It’s a prosthetic. It’s not like it moves around. It’s not like it’s not well-kept. The movie also misses a really obvious opportunity about Ricci’s first kiss, though maybe in the original cut, there’s another one.

Ricci tries her best to act without being able to use half her face, thanks to the prosthetic. Her eyebrow work is phenomenal. Though there’s nothing she can do with the part, not with the writing, her costars, or the directing.

Besides Ricci, the best performances are Reese Witherspoon (who produced Penelope and, given selling her production company for a billion dollars, clearly got better at it after this movie) and Peter Dinklage. Witherspoon’s not bad, but she’s not successful either. I’m not even sure—in the ninety-minute cut—Penelope even passes Bechdel. It definitely doesn’t because even if Witherspoon has a name when she meets Ricci… Ricci doesn’t have a name because she’s incognito. Witherspoon’s in it for a couple scenes.

Dinklage is bad.

He’s just not as bad as everyone else. O’Hara’s in a similar position to Ricci, except with an unlikable character. She’s just the overbearing mom. Grant and McAvoy are atrocious. They’re both doing American accents, and they’re both terrible at them. Sometimes when he’s quiet, Grant seems like he’ll be good when he speaks (he isn’t, but seems like it). McAvoy’s consistently atrocious.

And then there’s Simon Woods as the British blue-blood who runs away from Ricci and then teams up with paparazzi Dinklage to out the freak in the newspapers.

Penelope has a minor newspaper subplot and doesn’t even know how to do newspaper printing montages. Director Palansky is full-stop incompetent. With the actors, with the composition, with the tone, with okaying the montages. Even a slightly better director would’ve helped immensely. Palansky’s only good moments are because his crew isn’t wholly inept.

Someone could’ve gotten some hash out of Penelope—no pun (though there are endless pork-related puns in the film, and none of them are funny, and we never even see how they affect Ricci because it’s so poorly done). But not Palansky. Not without a profound rewrite. You could even keep the cast (maybe not Woods).

Or just give Ricci something where she gets to use the brows.

Leave a Reply

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: