It's sort of cute to watch American cinema flailing around with the princess paradigm, as fairy-tale films like Enchanted, The Princess Diaries, Shrek, Ella Enchanted, and Ever After try to find safe ground between romantic fantasies and modern feminist ideals. How to balance girl-power self-actualization with the beloved little-girl daydream of being the prettiest princess in the land, wooed by the handsomest prince? Penelope, the latest film to essay these treacherous waters, gets by mostly on winsome charm; where the balance doesn't really work, it tries to tip the scales with a shrug and a smile.
Once upon a time (naturally), an irritated witch cursed an aristocratic London family to produce a daughter with the face of a pig. By coincidence, though, the family birthed only sons, until modern-day scion Penelope (Christina Ricci) was born to high-strung scenery-gobbler Catherine O'Hara and dimly oblivious dad Richard E. Grant. The terms of the curse state that Ricci will remain snouted until she's accepted for life by "one of her own kind." So O'Hara and Grant hide her behind a one-way mirror and start trying to hook her up with other British bluebloods, who mostly leap out of windows in terror when she finally shows her face. The exception is impoverished chronic gambler James McAvoy, who halfheartedly romances Ricci while trying to get a picture of her for bitter paparazzo Peter Dinklage. But naturally, he and Ricci make a personal connection, and blah blah blah romance, etc.
To the film's credit, the key to Ricci's dilemma isn't wholly dependent on her snagging a man. That too often leaves McAvoy hovering purposelessly in the background, among several other loose plotlines, but it lets the film step off the rom-com rails and ditch the Disney-princess tropes, as Ricci veers off on her own mildly innovative storyline. None of which keeps Penelope from being sloppy, unfocused, and occasionally shrill, particularly when the usually reliable O'Hara mugs her way through desperate theme-establishing lines like "You are not your nose! You are not you! You're somebody else!" First-time director Mark Palansky is trying for a deft, hip, modern fairy-tale feel, but the odd material, sprawling story, and complicated tonal balancing act get away from him, and the film winds up as a poorly paced tug-of-war between sweet quirk and sloppy camp. But there are worse messages, and worse ways of bringing them across. At least the film's hesitant heart is in the right place.