Sara Vilkomerson’s Guide to This Week’s Movies: Oink, Oink, Christine’s a Piggy

Hey, how about those Oscars? We doubt it was just the DayQuil that had us thinking this was one of the best shows in ages … it had more to do with the fact that this year the movies were just so darn good and deserving (all those sweet foreigner acceptance speeches really helped, too). Isn’t it hard to come back to reality and realize that it’s still just February and we’ve got some time to kill before we see anything new that will be worthy of an Oscar? (And, ahem, here you go: Vantage Point, about the attempted assassination of the president told from five different perspectives, took over the box office this weekend—smell you, Jumper!)

Continuing with this weird cinematic limbo-land is a film that’s been batted about since it premiered at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, Penelope. Directed by Mark Palansky, the movie is a modern fairy tale about a rich heiress cursed with the snout of a pig. Seriously. Only true love will free her blah-blah-blah, but most of the men sent her way by her parents—who have kept her locked away—tend to go screaming for the door.

Let’s start with the good: The film stars Christina Ricci as Penelope and James McAvoy (cast in this before his Atonement stardom, clearly) as a roguish down-on-his-luck lad. The two actors are each so naturally charming that they manage to bring some grace to this muddled picture, which never seems to be sure what it is. Even with a pig snout Christina Ricci is adorable, and Mr. McAvoy’s wobbly American accent can’t mask his leading-man charisma, but the film never seems to find it’s footing. There are moments with the whimsical sets, all lush, jeweled colors for a fairly-tale feel, create an atmosphere of Tim Burton-lite, but Penelope teeters uncomfortably between campy romantic comedy and love-yourself-for-yourself-you-go-girlfriend message. For instance, when Penelope tires of being cooped up in her fancy house and runs away to see the real world—yes!—she keeps a scarf wrapped around her face the whole time, and just looks like someone who just popped in from the cold. During her travels she meets a new friend, played by first-time producer Reese Witherspoon—and hey, we think Ms. Witherspoon is a fine actress but trying to believe her as a Vespa-driving toughie is a stretch. The cameos are fun; Catherine O’Hara and Richard E. Grant play Penelope’s overprotective parents, and Peter Dinklage shows up as a reporter intent on unmasking Penelope’s secret (oh yeah, we think there is some message about media and fame and tabloid-ism in there somewhere, too). But mostly, we came away wondering what the movie could have been like if it had been directed by, well, Tim Burton. We’re guessing … better.

Penelope opens Friday at United Artists theater at 64th and 2nd Avenue.