There are some intriguing issues buried within the story of Penelope: what it means for a woman to love and accept herself the way she is, the way beauty ideals are — sometimes cruelly — passed down from mother to daughter, society's eagerness to vilify those who are different and then, just as quickly, to embrace them as "cute" upon discovering that they're harmless. These things are touched on, but mostly with a glazing brush, leaving the pretty film with adorable people lacking anything resembling "oomph."
The story follows Penelope Wilhern who, due to a curse put on her wealthy socialite family long ago, was born with a pig nose. In order to break the curse, she must find "one of her own" (i.e. a "blue blood") to love her just as she is and marry her. Only then will the spell break and her nose take on a normal shape. Desperate to break the curse and have a normal daughter, Penelope's mother (Catherine O'Hara) devotes her life to finding Penelope a husband, but the men who meet Penelope keep jumping out the window at the sight of her. Meanwhile, a one-eyed journalist determined to get a photo of "the pig-faced girl" and a selfish blue-blooded young man pay a down-on-his-luck musician (James McAvoy) to try and woo Penelope. For more about the movie than just this plot — some spoilers ahead — read more.
Visually, the fanciful made-up world providing the backdrop for this modern fairy tale is endearing and at times quite lovely. The performances are mostly great — I especially enjoy Reese Witherspoon in her funny, tough girl role as Penelope's friend, a wonderful departure from Witherspoon's bright and sometimes two-dimensional rom-com stuff. James McAvoy is lovable as always, and Catherine O'Hara as Penelope's hysterical mother sometimes steals the show.
My favorite performance comes from Peter Dinklage who plays the desperate journalist. Not only is he a master of deadpan humor, but he's perhaps the only person in the film who goes on any kind of identifiable emotional arc. We're supposed to be on Penelope's journey, but Ricci has a hard time fluctuating the tone of her performance beyond a steady whine. Thus, the few good performances can't make up for Ricci's low-octane delivery and a disappointing cop-out ending.
This tired, predictable ending features Penelope learning to accept herself and being rewarded with what she's always wanted. The message within this is frustrating. Penelope's final, hard-won self-acceptance, once found, is rendered useless and thrown out the window because that's when she becomes "normal." Phew! Now she no longer needs to like being different. Normal is still best. How refreshing.
Bottom line: It's a modern fairy tale that still supports age-old beauty ideals and doesn't really try anything new or interesting.