Lemon (Peter Dinklage) is one of those old-fashioned reporters, the kind you see in movies. He wears a rumpled jacket and carries a notepad, he cocks his head when listening to someone, as if he’s better able to process absurdities from an angle. And he’s got a perpetually world-weary look on his face, occasionally bent into a wry smile. He’s smart, he’s tenacious, and, at the start of Penelope, he’s frustrated after years of residing in the professional doghouse.
The reason for his sad state is preposterous, like most everything else in the movie. As revealed in a speedball flashback that opens the proceedings, some 25 years ago he ruined his good name by seeing and reporting on an extraordinary child, born with a pig nose. As this story was a bit difficult to believe, his employer demanded proof, which Lemon was unable to provide owing to the little girl’s family’s complete and absolute clamp-down on all public access to her. And so Lemon has spent his time in journalism purgatory, doing tabloid pickup jobs and yearning to be back on the investigative beat.
Lemon’s disillusionment and efforts to reclaim his reporter’s cred grant Penelope something like a topical theme, as the fairy tale at its center is juiced by reference to the cruelties media inflict on public figures. While Penelope (Christina Ricci) never asks to be a celebrity, she is by dint of her nose, as well as the fact that her extremely wealthy parents, Jessica (Catherine O’Hara) and Franklin Wilhern (Richard E. Grant), had, prior to her arrival, actually courted the press. Since that trauma, however — a function of a convoluted family curse cast by a mid-nineteenth century witch — the Wilherns have stayed closed off in their elaborate London home, ensuring that their daughter never reveals herself to prying eyes, especially reporters. Jessica’s dearest hope is that Penelope will meet and marry a suitable young man, namely, one of “her own kind” (which translates to “blue blood”) and so, kill the curse.
Penelope accommodates her mother by meeting with possible suitors, enticed to the mansion by promises of wealth and status, then running way in horror, literally screaming, as soon as they see the nose. It’s a tedious routine — for Penelope as well as you — but the movie shows it again and again, perhaps making fun of the idiot boys, perhaps building sympathy for the stalwart Penelope, and perhaps just wearing you down for no good reason except, perhaps, to make you very happy to see the right boy when he arrives at last.
This boy is Max (James McAvoy), engaged by Lemon to approach the girl with a camera in his coat, snap a photo, and so redeem Lemon’s career. Max first appears gambling and drinking: he’s squandered whatever inheritance he had, and now spends his time alternating between being hateful and mournful. But even if he thinks he’s a cad, you know better, for as soon as he walks into Penelope’s life, he’s more sensitive to what she might need or want than anyone else in the movie — including her parents who pretend to dote on her. The other reason you’re happy to see Max is that his plotline reintroduces Lemon, easily the film’s most beguiling character.
Lemon brings with him the movie’s passing interest in the power of mass media to shape the lives of consumers, targets, and oh yes, reporters, as well as its observation of the rich from a slight distance. While Penelope and her mother are hopelessly immersed in their privilege and entitlement, Lemon remains appropriately skeptical of all things ordained. Except, of course, his role in the film, which is to kick-start Penelope’s quest for independence. While Lemon and his sidekick Edward (Simon Woods), an erstwhile Penelope suitor who also needs her exposed to redeem his own reputation, are determined that Max complete his mission, Max is increasingly reluctant. This ensures that he is the right guy, for he has a sense of morality and even genuine affection for Penelope, who is witty, sweet, and self-aware, not to mention well-read.
The romance offers the most overt example of Penelope‘s love-yourself “message,” but it’s a dreary trick. Though the film grants Penelope a moment of self-discovery and self-affirmation as she rejects her mother’s desires and steps out on her own, it can’t (or won’t) avoid the standard-issue happy ending. You keep hoping Lemon will stumble in and snap a photo, but he’s been effectively removed from the action by now, having served his purpose in setting up the rich folks’ (self-)love story.