The problem with Penelope, as I see it, at least, is that American filmmakers just haven't yet found a way to exploit her talents the way that European ones have. She is currently Oscar nominated for her role in Vicky Christina Barcelona, but, sadly, I don't think this film is an exception to the American/European Penelope rule, though I do wish her well with the award.
Now, you know me. You know I'm not some sort of foreign film snob. I just love movies. So when I tell you that Volver and Non Ti Muovere and Sin Noticias de Dios and Todo Sobre Mi Madre are flicks worth seeing, I'm not shoveling some esoteric ennui upon you. Okay, some of them may have a touch of that, but not too much.
Cruz was already becoming the first lady of Spanish cinema by the time she filmed 1997's Abre Los Ojos, which was later re-made as the muddled, American Vanilla Sky. But she rose to international fame with her role in Pedro Almodovar's Todo Sobre Mi Madre just a couple years later, and then, the US came calling with Woman on Top, a quirky little comedy about a woman whose severe motion sickness has ill effects on her marriage, and then Billy Bob's All the Pretty Horses. Luckily for movie lovers, she works a lot, and she went back to Spanish cinema for 2001's Sin Noticias de Dios, known here in the States as Don't Tempt Me. In this flick, Heaven and Hell enter a tug of war over the soul of a boxer, so each sends a representative to vie for his fate. Penelope was Hell's ambassador, and to say much more about her role would give away some of delightful twists. But it really is a great vehicle to showcase the sexy-yet-stunningly tough Cruz in action in a fast and fun film that has enough offhanded charm to please an angel or demon.
In 2004, she learned Italian and professed her love for Italian life and won the role of Italia, a dark and depressing role about a damaged woman in Non Ti Muovere (Don't Move or, sometimes, Don't Look Now in English.) In other words, she got to show her dramatic chops to critics and audiences who aren't as wowed with the lighter touch. It is a difficult role in a different movie, but it also probably falls over that line of "esoteric foreign" if you're inclined to have those prejudices.
Unlike so many actresses --particularly those of great beauty-- who make an early, substantial mark and then spend the rest of their career never really capturing those same heights, Cruz has, so far, only managed to get better. I refer, of course, to 2006 and her reunion with the celebrated Almodovar for the popular Volver. Though generally not considered his best film, it still bears all his signature touches in this strange, sad, and funny movie. This is a movie ruled by women, and Penelope is its center -- at once controlled and yet wildly vibrant; full of life and strength and subtle surprises. She's known as the Spanish Enchantress, and in Volver, she's absolutely that and more. Maybe, like my weirdo friend, you don't find her physically attractive, but you'd still fall absolutely in love with her in this movie.