With the $135 million (and counting) commercial success of Juno, the bar has recently been re-set for whimsical tales of headstrong, intelligent young women grappling with life difficulties. So it’s both surprisingly appropriate and something of a cruel irony that in the week after screenwriter Diablo Cody’s Oscar triumph for the latest “little film that could” from indie powerhouse Fox Searchlight, Christina Ricci’s Penelope finally sees the light of day, after a long delay in release.
Acquired by IFC Films for theatrical distribution at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006, the movie was set to bow in first April and then August of last year, before IFC reorganized its priorities, choosing to focus on its core business of smaller-budget independent films. Sold off to upstart Summit Entertainment (whose first release was last autumn’s P2, starring Rachel Nichols), the movie was then shelved again (even though it had already begun screening for critics), repackaged with a new PR company and marketing scheme, and finally slated for this February — a leap year release date of the 29th, fittingly enough. The result was a disappointing ninth place opening last weekend, to $3.8 million in 1,196 theaters. Reviewers weren’t much kinder, either.
Clumsy and wanly farcical, Penelope veers jerkily between fairytale fantasy and more tenderhearted reality. The story centers the title character, the intelligent daughter of a fantastically rich family (Catherine O’Hara and Richard Grant are her parents) who is the victim of a curse that renders her with a pig’s snout for a nose. The spell can only be broken if Penelope bonds with a young man from a similarly sociable and well-heeled family, which is where Max (James McAvoy) comes in. Written by Leslie Caverny and directed by Mark Palansky, Penelope is a slender, sort of self-esteem booster shot of an idea given no sort of rigorous workout beyond its base, rah-rah components and one distinguishing narrative hook.
Perhaps most, though, the movie suffers from the weight of unreasonable expectations. A beloved child starlet of the 1990s, in both Mermaids and two Addams Family movies, Ricci came of her own as an indie queen in the post-Parker Posey landscape of the American independent film scene. Roles in Buffalo ’66, The Opposite of Sex, Pecker, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and, most notably, The Ice Storm gave Ricci the glow of an actress on the rise — a young, real world, thinking guy’s sex symbol. But Ricci was never a reliable box office indicator. And holding back Penelope with the thinking that her rising star, or that of producer Reese Witherspoon (who has a small cameo in the movie) or McAvoy (Atonement), might give the movie some sort of commercial bump was foolhardy at best.
This was always a movie for the interstices, especially considering Ricci’s biggest adult hits (a short list to begin with) have all landed in the $10 to $35 million range. For all her respect amongst peers, Ricci’s mainstream prospects have come across as… well, cursed, much like the 2005 horror movie of the same name from director Wes Craven and Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson — a $40 production that had to shut down filming to get its script problems ironed out, and then released, in derisible form, to $19 million, with only Ricci‘s face on the poster.
Then there’s the matter of Ricci’s complicated history with starring roles in delayed movies beginning with the letter “P.” 2002’s Pumpkin bounced around for a while, finally grossing only $300,000 and change; the much-hyped Prozac Nation, meanwhile, was completed in 2001 and then sat on by Miramax for two years before being released straight to DVD. In that regard, perhaps Penelope has already outperformed its station. None of this bodes particularly well for the theatrical haul of this summer’s Speed Racer, from the Wachowski brothers. At least that movie doesn’t begin with the letter “P,” though. For the full original review, from FilmStew, click here. (Summit, PG, 103 minutes)