The offbeat story doesn’t always work, but it’s always refreshing.

By Bob Brown
WHIMISCAL. That’s the word for it. This is like a children’s story all dressed up to go out on the town. It’s an odd animal — sort of like the title character, who’s mostly human but partly pig. It takes place somewhere between London and, well, Greenwich, Conn. No use trying to figure out why many of the main characters seem to be Americans, and the rest are English, or why some of the English actors have adopted American accents.
   The genesis was just as quirky: TV writer Leslie Caveny had been in a rut until she read something by Stephen King about writing for yourself. So she chucked everything and came up with this heartwarming little story. It’s about a girl who was born under a family curse, which saddled her with a pig’s snout and ears. The project was shopped around Hollywood for a while, with no takers (you can imagine — lots of producers were probably thinking Howard the Duck, one of the more spectacular misfires).
   But thank goodness for Reese Witherspoon, whose own quirky imagination had found just the right vehicle in Legally Blonde and its sequel. She embraced the story, along with her co-producer, Jennifer Simpson. “It’s just a very magical story about a girl coming to terms with who she is as a person and I think it’s something that can touch everybody,” Simpson said in production notes to the movie. “Reese and I fell in love with it.”
   As with so many features rolling out to theaters this season, Penelope is one of those jobs created by people who have no feature film background. Besides Caveny, director Mark Palansky was also a neophyte, having spent his previous life directing TV celebrity interview shows. The script enchanted him, though, and enchantment led to passion, which led to a determination to do the movie. But Caveny thought their inexperience could be a hindrance: “we thought that could be kind of tricky trying to get people to believe in us.” She shouldn’t have worried. Inexperience is all the rage.
   Although the project was risky on paper, in actuality the producers hedged their bets by signing up some major screen talent. The hapless Penelope Wilhern (Christina Ricci) is a virtual prisoner in her parents’ mansion, shielded from the prying eyes of the world. The reason? Her mother, Jessica (Catherine O’Hara), and father, Franklin (Richard E. Grant), want to marry her off to an eligible blue-blood suitor, and thus remove the family curse that has turned Penelope porcine. The problem is, the suitors can’t know what Penelope looks like beforehand, otherwise they’ll never even come around. The ones who do will inevitably run screaming from the grounds, or jump out a window after they see the girl. All are sworn to secrecy about what they’ve seen.
   The one exception is Max (James McAvoy), a burned-out musician and chronic gambler. He is working undercover for Lemon (Peter Dinklage), a reporter who had a fleeting glimpse of the infant Penelope, before Jessica punched his eye out. Lemon just wants to get the picture that proves he wasn’t seeing things. Lemon’s cohort is Edward Vanderman (Simon Woods), an ex-suitor whose report to the police gets him labeled as loony. Ed just wants to clear his name so he can inherit his father’s business.
   Max has a hidden camera, but he can’t coax Penelope to come out from behind a two-way mirror, not until he’s had several meetings and heartfelt conversations with her. Their literally blind dates draw them closer until Penelope finds out what he’s really up to. It’s the old story: boy meets pig, boy falls for pig, pig becomes disillusioned and splits.
   Witherspoon so loved the project that she inserted herself into the proceedings as a motorcycle delivery-person, Annie, who has just broken up with her man. (Witherspoon’s own troubles with Ryan Philippe must have just been kicking off during production; that gives her characterization authenticity.)
   As with all fairytales, curses can be removed through brave or humbling deeds. Penelope’s courage isn’t the obvious heroic sort. Prince Charming isn’t going to unlock it, which centers this tale on what she needs to find within.
   Ricci hasn’t been seen often enough in films. It took a bit of courage on her part to accept this role—especially since she had to endure many hours each day with a prosthetic snout. Dinklage, whose breakout performance was in the little gem The Station Agent, is carving out a great body of work in small pictures. McAvoy’s star has been rising since his appearance in Atonement, and he does a great job here, too, but why the American accent? It’s O’Hara who runs away with the film, though. Her hysterical mother is hysterical fun.
   The offbeat story is supported by the bizarre production design of Amanda McArthur and set decoration of Bridget Menzies, who have dressed up the color-splashed interiors of the Wilhern mansion like the inside of a toychest.
   All in all, it’s an odd little movie that doesn’t always work, but the overall effect is curiously refreshing.
Rated PG for thematic elements, some innuendo and language.