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Fitting in by standing out: two films make a play to join the canon of misfit cinema.

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PENELOPE

DIRECTED BY Mark Palansky

STARRING Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, and Catherine O'Hara

SUMMIT ENT./STONE VILLAGE PICTURES

CHARLIE BARTLETT

DIRECTED BY Jon Poll

STARRING Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey Jr., Hope Davis, and Kat Dennings

MGM

IN PENELOPE, CHRISTINA RICCI plays the victim of a very unusual family curse: She's doomed to forever possess a pig's nose unless she can convince a picky blueblood to fall in love with her. I trust you to embrace that premise the movie does not. Instead, it's endlessly explained through voice-over, flashbacks, and even flashbacks within flashbacks. Yet, even with all that backstory, the plot still lurches in directions that confuse. For a movie that aspires to the airy grace of a fairy tale, its scenes land with a resounding thud.

Ricci's best hope for a suitor who can break the curse comes from James McAvoy (Atonement, Becoming Jane), the Scottish actor who's begun to corner the market on love-interest roles in female melodramas. McAvoy is an appealing actor, though utterly boyish in Penelope he's supposed to play a rogue, but his only accessory is a set of mild whiskers two shades too light. Ricci seems beguiled, though it's hard to tell, as the face on this expressive actress is slathered in prosthetic makeup.

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Penelope is directed by first-timer Mark Palansky, and while he's clearly intending to make a female-empowerment tale by way of Tim Burton, all this film retains are canted angles and Catherine O'Hara as Ricci's irritable mother. There could be real melancholy, and there should be for it to work, but any authentic feeling is buried under quirky art direction. After the shy Penelope finally ventures into the real world, she finds that her pig nose actually catapults her to fame, and that's a lesson I wish the filmmakers had spent more time investigating. As readers of this magazine may have discovered, the very trait you try to hide in adolescence can help you to stand out as a full-fledged adult.

The titular teen nerd in Charlie Bartlett doesn't wait until high school ends to work his magic--he appoints himself school psychiatrist and calms the student body by giving them someone who will listen (as well as the occasional pilfered Zoloft). Played by Anton Yelchin, who has the wide-set eyes and snub nose of an anime character, Charlie is like Ferris Bueller dropped into Rushmore Academy. Using the boys' bathroom as his office, he helps nerds find solace and coaxes bullies to come out of the closet.

Charlie is only the latest in a series of erudite teens to hit the big screen this season (an encouraging trend for his creator, scenarist Gustin Nash, who is prepping a hyperliterate adaptation of C.D. Payne's novel Youth in Revolt to star Juno's Michael Cera). Born rich, straight, and Anglo-Saxon, Charlie wears his privilege like a comfortable blazer, but he's determined to pass on every generosity he came upon naturally. Like a billionaire who enters politics free of special interests--or Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls--Charlie lands in public school without the hardened hide of one who's had to navigate its cliques.

As Charlie, Yelchin gives a witty, sparkling performance, but this is a well-cast film from top to bottom, with wry supporting turns from Hope Davis as Charlie's morn and Robert Downey Jr. as the school's rumpled principal. Especially noteworthy is the spiky Kat Dennings, who plays the principal's daughter with a streak of intelligence as vivid as her ruby-red lipstick. She's the kind of throaty female character that Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Rushmore lacked, and though the film's story is derivative of both those films, it's a worthy successor and continuously inventive within its means. It's also being dumped into the marketplace by MGM, so go see it before it begins its inevitable cult afterlife on DVD.
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Title Annotation:FILM; Penelope; Charlie Bartlett
Author:Buchanan, Kyle
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Feb 26, 2008
Words:640
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