Is there anything more hideous than curdled whimsy? That dreadful but sometimes inevitable result of combining quirkiness with cynical cool and idiosyncrasy with irony - how much I hate it, and what it has done to independent cinema in this country! Filmmakers who confuse eccentric behavior and costume with character development, and then try to hide their sins under a feel-good patina of magical realism...they strangle Art in its crib, where Art should be most free to flourish, seekingly only to court bastard Commerce with ever more twee (how I abominate that word and the concept behind it!) expressions of charming little people bucking the system.
The long-delayed Penelope is not an exceptional film in this regard; it is simply another in the occasional line of fairy tales for adults, unmemorable and colorless. But there's something about it, a calculated quality, where all of its genially whimsical design and storytelling feel like they were produced according to a formula for squeezing the maximum amount of cloying charm out of the minimum investment.
It begins with the words "Once Upon a Time," and title character, played by Christina Ricci, narrating the history of her family, with sped-up, quickly-edited, CGI-enhanced visuals pop back and forth for our putative enjoyment. It is both in appearance and content entirely indebted to Amélie, only much more self-evidently manufactured. Whether one loves or despises that film's quirky excess (I go back and forth), we can all agree that "a more artificial Amélie" is not ever going to be meant as a compliment.
Penelope's story is about a curse laid upon her aristocratic family many generations past that the first girl born in the main line of descent would be given the face of a pig. The curse could only be lifted if a member of the upper class - "one of your own" - loved that pig-faced woman truly 'til death. As Penelope is, of course, the first-born girl, and thus stricken with pointy little ears and an upturned little snout, the film is about her two-pronged journey through life: first to find that true love, and second to come out from under the domineering shadow of her mother (Catherine O'Hara, absolutely wasted as a unimaginatively neurotic, image-obsessed blueblood), who has spent the last two and a half decades making sure that Penelope is never seen by anyone who might want to exploit her.
It occurs to me that there is a good deal of plot beyond that, and I was actually going to summarise it a bit until I decided it was just going to lead to a thicket of "this person did this while this thing happened and over here that" madness. This is part of the problem: fairy tales by their nature are fairly discursive, but they are also fairly straightforward. Event A leads to Event B, and no matter how large the cast of characters or broad the geographic scope, everything is very linear. Penelope is a sprawling mess, with at least three distinct plot arcs running all at once involving characters who are all interconnected in different ways and many scenes that have just sort of been jammed into the plot because something was supposed to be cute or funny. Eventually, writer Leslie Caveny (a sitcom veteran) commits one of the greatest sins that a screenwriter can: she mostly resolves all of the conflicts well in advance of the film's ending, and must therefore invent a fourth act to keep the plot cranking to feature length.
Without, as I said, getting caught up in the plot, I'd be remiss in failing to mention that the supporting cast includes James McAvoy (this film is coming at at rather perilous time for his career, I'd say. I have to imagine that his agent is horrified it wasn't released on schedule a year ago) as the love interest, the glamorously shaggy Max; and the film's producer Reese Witherspoon as Annie, the fast-talking hipster girl that Penelope clings to as a role model when she manages to sneak out into the wide world.
I'm not sure that the story qua the story is a disaster (though the final act problems surely are), so much as what's done with the story. Somewhere between the writing and the directing (by first-timer Mark Palansky), there's a tonal disconnect. Sincerity and irony collide rather uncomfortably in the film, which clearly wants to be a very innocent and wide-eyed look at how marvelous it is to be open-minded, while being all slick and cynical in execution. It's a Disney-esque fantasy for hipster douchebags, that's about the only conclusion I can come up with, and a more terrifying chimera I cannot imagine.
Really, though, the deeper problem is just that they weren't willing to commit to making a fairy tale, and that's what allowed the irony to bubble up and seep through. It's been a well-noted paradox that the whole plot hinges on how powerfully hideous Penelope's pig-face is, and how lookist people assume she must be terrible because of it, but the prosthetic nose Ricci has been set up with is in fact quite darling - perhaps even cuter than her already alarming cute face. We can write this off as "what the film needs to do to work." But the audience should never, ever have to rationalise for the filmmakers, and we have to do quite a lot of it with Penelope, and all because they either don't want to make a fairy tale or don't know how, and so the magical realism that should have been the film's main attraction becomes a grotesque, crippling liability.
I should give credit where it's do, and salute the work of production designer Amanda McArthur. Penelope is not a masterpiece of the craft, let's make that clear, with much of the film seeming extremely fussed-over in a bad way; and cinematographer Michel Amathieu perpetually under-lights everything (though that's hardly McArthur's fault). But in its best-looking moments, Penelope drifts close to work on the level at which it was conceived. I am thinking first of the establishing shots of the Magical Everycity where the film is set (a fantasized London full of Americans, basically), second of the room which Penelope, locked away for most of her life, has filled with the knick-knacks and curious that capture her imagination: bell jars with plants, large cartoon trees, butterflies. I don't mean it as a slam to suggest that it looks like what Tim Burton's career might have been if he'd been impressed at a young age by Shirley Temple and not Vincent Price. (Burton's spirit hangs over this project, starting with the plot, like Edward Scissorhands for awful people).
But a little bit of good design does not a good film make. Penelope is a sham, trying to convince us that it's sweet and charming instead of cynically shrewd, with a contrivance of gears and clockwork where its heart should be.