Bad Pennmanship

Ridgemont High - The Good... Mystic River - ...the Bad... 21 Grams - ...and the Ugly
Sean Penn, from the early days to the latest. Unforgettable as Jeff Spicoli, unforgivable as Jimmy Marcus, and unbelievable as Paul Rivers.

It’s a night full of sweet Saturday after a day full of unaccustomed sun, and just one turn left before the Academy Awards™ do their Academy Awards™ thing. I haven’t watched the Oscars in years, and I can’t imagine I’ll do it tomorrow either, but I have to squeeze this in before the deal is done and the Atkins Diet Lady sings: there is no reason on earth why Sean Penn should even be considered for Best Actor this time out, let alone be an inner-track money’s-on pick to win.

I know, I know. We live in a lowbrow age and levelling is supposed to be good for us; elitism has, incredibly, become a negative quality, and everyone’s favorite opinions always start something like, “I don’t know horsepucky about films or acting, but here’s what I think about the Oscar nominees this year.” We’re letting religion define science, we’re asking “men of God,” whose fingers may still smell from sticking them in children, whether gay couples are morally sound enough to marry and whether women are minted deeply enough to serve as priests. Some of us even think that if we keep poking around in Iraq, we’ll actually find weapons of mass destruction. Like, dude, how would they get there?

For that matter, someone at Knopf has allowed Joe Eszterhas to write a book, which people are reading – well, a few of them – and bookstores are actually putting on the shelves. This is kind of like inviting Al Goldstein to collaborate on your adaptation of Little Women, except that it goes on for 752 pages. Anyway, it’s the Dark Ages, all right? We understand this.

Sean Penn is a sunshower in a shot glass compared to most of the above – especially the Eszterhas, man, there’s just no excuse for that – but something about the whole thing irks me hard. Maybe it’s simply how joyous Johnny Depp was as Captain Jack Sparrow, how brave and luminous Bill Murray was as the unshowy and lonely fading star Bob Harris, or how stern and taut Sir Ben Kingsley has been through his long career. Maybe it’s how much the rest of Western Civilization and I are feeling Scarlett Johansson. Or maybe it’s just how inappropriate Sean Penn really was in Mystic River, a film that deserved a real stanchion to anchor its story rather than an anvil to drag along behind it.

I saw Mystic River partly on the strength of A.O. Scott’s New York Times review, which credited Sean Penn as Jimmy Marcus with “one of the definitive pieces of screen acting in the last half-century, the culmination of a realist tradition that began in the old Actor’s Studio and begat Brando, Dean, Pacino and De Niro,” and boasts that he has “purged his work of any trace of theatricality or showmanship while retaining all the directness and force that their applications of the Method brought into American movies.”

In a word: “not.”

My cinema for the film was one of New York’s best movie rooms. From down front in Theatre 1, Sean Penn was fanatically kempt – enough with the hair already, hair doesn’t act – and far too concerned with where the camera met his gaze. His cartoony dorsal tattoo is easy evidence of how little he embraced the mixed-bag character from Dennis Lehane‘s excellent bestselling book. His pretty scream to the crane-shot camera owed too much and learned too little from Brando’s Streetcar bellow (“Stella!”). Except for the first natural steps, before the murder which drives the rest of the film, his characterization was like an autopsy: meticulous, calculated, charted, and ultimately prissy. Overall his performance is overstated and melodramatic. The grandstanding nearly swamps the solid and beautiful work of Tim Robbins (Best Supporting Actor nomination), Kevin Bacon, and the relentless Laurence Fishburne, all of whom are content to play the characters assigned them by the author. It ends up being everyone vs. Jimmy, which does the film a real disservice.

Don’t get me wrong. Penn is fun to watch, and his technique is often breathtaking. Technique in service of character is acting at its highest call – but technique to wow the punters and keep people watching your star rather than the movie is betrayal of the art. I like Sean Penn’s politics, mostly, and I like his bravado and his spirit and, well, if you’re going to marry Madonna you have balls the size of a house. But I never find him natural, and I often find him jolting and way over the top. I’d like to see him win an Oscar, too, for great work in a great role. But that didn’t happen this year. This year, he showed off.

And yes, I saw 21 Grams. A little too much wall-biting for my tastes. Some terrific work was done, too, but Penn played Paul Rivers as Jimmy Marcus Lite, and as a math professor he was utterly unbelievable. One of the tenets of real acting, as practiced by the greats: you must become as great and large as your character; you may not simply toss away the chunks of character that you don’t feel like doing in favor of the parts you’re good at, like an unmindful 4th grader leaving pizza crust on his plate after eating the middle. If you’re a math professor, that’s part of the picture. You can’t just play a stricken romantic cowboy when you’ve been written as a math professor. You’re a fucking math professor. Get with the program.

Since I’m swimming against the moviegoing tide and pissing everyone off, I might as well eat the rest of the hog while I’m here. Much as I love Return of the King and all things Tolkien, and happy as I am that fantasy is finally being noticed by the Academy, still … well, the picture just wasn’t strong enough to convince as the year’s best. And that Passion of the Christ bohemoth? A mammoth load of hooey, which would have gained greatly from less fetish-as-religion bloody bondage. More compassion, less passion. As dead-language flicks go, I’ll take Incubus in Esperanto any day.

About Linus

The man behind the curtain. But couldn't we get a nicer curtain?
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