A movie is like a "some assembly required" toy you put together Christmas Eve: If you don't get section A assembled just so, sections B, C, D and E won't come together.
That's basically the problem with "Penelope": Without taking the time to get its keystone first section right, director Mark Palansky's subsequent sections result in a toy that promises fun but ultimately disappoints.
Here's the deal: the blueblood Wilhern family is plagued by a generations-old curse dating to when Ralph Wilhern proposed to a common servant girl, then rescinded the offer. Bad move: The girl's mom was the town witch, who proclaimed that the first daughter born to a Wilhern would have a pig face, a condition that could only be undone by the pig-faced one being found lovable by one of her own.
Darned if it doesn't take a century and a half for a daughter -- a legitimate one -- to be born. Penelope (a bland Christina Ricci) arrives with a snout and ears that will later drive potential suitors crazy -- and running headlong through a second-floor plate glass window to escape upon first meeting. And there's plenty of plate glass sacrificed as eligible young men are lured by the prospect of Penelope's ample dowry.
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Eventually, though, one doesn't flee.
Max Campion (James McAvoy) is a misunderstood (in more ways than one) free spirit who doesn't spook immediately. That's largely because Penelope wises up by this point and conducts her first courtship interview with him through one-way glass. Here's where Palansky gets sloppy with the instructions.
Penelope and Max have three relatively short conversations, conversations that are crucial to making us care what happens to the two. There's a germ of something between Penelope and Max. But Palansky fails to cultivate that germ into a raging fever. There is no epiphany, no spark, no Aha! moment that makes you believe these two were destined for each other. About as close as we get is this exchange during a game of chess:
Penelope: "Once the queen is dead, the king is useless."
Max: "What's that about?"
Penelope: "I dunno. Maybe he's too depressed to keep fighting."
Yet it's based on such uninspiring banter that Penelope feels compelled to pop the question after finally revealing herself. Max is freaked by her snout, sure. But blame him for declining, for deciding he's not ready to give up his freewheeling ways? Can't.
We don't really care when Max disappears for a while, we don't really care when Penelope decides to marry a fellow blueblood with nefarious motives, we don't really care when Penelope and Max meet again.
What keeps us from walking out of this uninspired, unassembled tale are some good performances. Peter Dinklage portrays Lemon, a tabloid reporter who first uncovered the Wilhern family secret by snapping a grainy photo of Penelope as a tot. Lemon is a true tabloid reporter, but something about Penelope's plight gives him second thoughts. Catherine O'Hara somehow makes Penelope's overbearing mom somewhat sympathetic, and Reese Witherspoon, whose Type A production company produced the film, has a too-short stay as a free-spirited, Vespa-driving delivery gal who aids Penelope's transition into the outside world.
"Penelope's" faulty setup results in a film broken before we have a chance to open it.