Jeff Spicoli once said that all he needed was some tasty waves and a cool buzz in order to be happy. However, Sean Penn, the man who initially brought this totally awesome surfer dude into the annals of our popular culture, stands as a sharp antithetical figure to zoned out slackerdom. Throughout the past two decades Sean Penn has carved out an impressive filmography, accruing five Academy Award nominations and winning twice, (Mystic River, Milk). Still, I have continuously found myself swept away by a gargantuan tidal wave of conflicting emotions regarding this semi-prolific cinematic figure. For example, despite the unanimous critical acclaim Penn received for both of his Oscar winning roles, I personally found myself not only underwhelmed, but also aggravated and somewhat repelled by what seemed to be acting laced with self-indulgence and hyperbolic emoting. Penn has also proven to be inconsistent throughout his career. For every taut or eclectic performance, (At Close Range, Sweet and Lowdown), there are also appearances in films that seem to exist only to attract potential accolades, (All the King’s Men, I Am Sam).
It wasn’t until I viewed the trailer for Penn’s latest opus, Fair Game, that I realized something must be done. I vowed to conduct a brief retrospective sampling of some of Penn’s most significant films in order to shed some light on a disturbing query that has long haunted me. Is Sean Penn a good actor? There have been many a sleepless night where I have tossed and turned, drenched in sweat, shaken by an endless stream of vociferous spit-spraying scenes that Penn has assaulted me with throughout the years. Yet, to be fair, there have also been an equal number of moments where I paused throughout my daily routine and I found myself reflecting upon certain films where I was impressed, and even moved by his careful and measured work. In the hope of finally putting this issue to bed I present the Sean Penn retrospective. The article starts early on in his career and works forward to the present day.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High – 1982
Sean Penn’s breakthrough role remains one of the few comedies where he has appeared in the past 25 years. Strangely, Penn’s characterization of the stoned-out surfer Spicoli also marks one of his freshest and most liberated performances. While the whole gnarly act begins to wear thin towards the film’s conclusion, it’s still wonderful to see Penn’s acting choices being dictated by something other than what will potentially procure him an almighty Academy Award.
GOOD: I BAD: 0
At Close Range – 1986
In this small and vicious drama from the mid-80‘s Penn’s Brad Whitewood Jr. faces off against his gangster father, played with total demonic zest by Christopher Walken, (in one of his best performances). This excellent and somewhat forgotten neo-noir has Penn delivering a performance that easily stands as some of his most accomplished work. His Brad Whitewood is a totally engrossing and multi-faceted character, and, as the film nears its horrific final act, you truly find yourself invested in his fate. Personally, I find this performance to be far superior to the bloated and ostentatious roles that would come to dominate Penn’s more recent cinematic output.
GOOD: II BAD: 0
Sweet and Lowdown – 1999
Penn teamed up with the old jungle cat, Woody Allen, and netted himself his second Academy Award nomination, for his performance as 1930‘s jazz guitarist Emmet Ray. Sweet and Lowdown marked another rare cinematic occasion where Penn seemed to throw his inhibitions out the window when preparing this performance. His Emmet Ray is perfectly realized and Penn’s investment in capturing Ray’s total character, even the odious qualities of the man, make the film itself memorable. It is a performance that stands as maybe Penn’s best role. He goes for broke in his characterization of Ray. There are moments when you think that Ray flirts with becoming a caricature. However, Penn seemed aware of just the right moment to pull back, with results that were often quite moving.
GOOD: III BAD: 0
I Am Sam – 2001
The dawning of the new millennium introduced the world to the next stage of Sean Penn’s career. It almost seems that the underlying motivation behind his role selection throughout the 2000‘s was solely what would put his butt in a seat at the Academy Awards. In the past decade Penn has not only played a developmentally disabled individual fighting for custody of his daughter, but also a benevolent homosexual politician, and a grief stricken father in a goddamn Eastwood flick. All three of which provide a one-way ticket to the sappy hearts of Oscar voters everywhere. In I Am Sam, Penn offers up a hammy and sanctimonious turn as the titular character. His performance is so utterly devoid of nuance or tact that it eventually becomes almost uncomfortable to keep your eyes focused on the screen. There are not that many films where you almost begin to feel suffocated by the level of sentimentality that is being roughly shoved down your esophagus.
GOOD: III BAD: I
Mystic River – 2003
“Is that my daughter in there?” This is the line that seems to run like a refrain throughout this early 2000‘s Eastwood flick. However, the line remains ingrained in the viewer’s mind not due to its thematic relevance, but because of the rapid and grotesque manner in which Penn’s spits out the line during Mystic River’s most unintentionally humorous scene. Early on in the film Penn’s character, Jimmy, comes across his slain daughter’s car surrounded by policemen. Overcome with rage and grief Penn rushes towards her resting spot like a wild and wounded animal, screaming like a bat out of hell, and is restrained by not one, not two, but almost an entire platoon of Boston’s finest. This scene perfectly encapsulates the worst attributes of Sean Penn, the actor. In this past decade we have seen him constantly go to these extremes, yet they feel forced. His performance in Mystic River is littered with scenes of deep trauma, pain, self-loathing, paranoia, and finally vindictive violence. However, for whatever reason, he doesn’t resonate. It is a shame that this performance beat out Nicholson’s insanely good work in About Schmidt.
GOOD: III BAD: II
All the Kings Men – 2005
In this turgid and hopelessly inane remake of the terrific 1949 adaptation, Sean Penn stars as the unscrupulous politician Willie Stark, (a thinly veiled version of Huey Long). Penn seems to expand upon all of the worst attributes of his performances in both I am Sam and Mystic River. His performance is so bombastic and overwrought that for a moment I thought a black hole had appeared in the center of my computer screen and was literally sucked everything into its oppressive void. Surrounded by a bevy of Hollywood stars Penn bites into every scene with the ferocity of a ravenous piranha. Nothing is spared from his fiendishly twisted characterization and the vapid dialogue that is constantly expressed. I am clueless as to why Penn and the other members of the film’s creative team didn’t simply exhume Broderick Crawford, (who won an Oscar for his seminal performance as Stark in the original film), and slap his corpse across the face.
GOOD: III BAD: III
In conclusion, as I sit and transcribe this article I painfully realize that my obsessive investigation into Penn’s merits as an actor remains inconclusive. Is he an artist that should be considered comparable to other cinematic heavyweights? Is he little more than an obnoxious and overrated blowhard? It is interesting to note that Penn is only fifty years old. He still hopefully has a couple of productive decades ahead of him. Maybe, as he reaches the end of his career, it will become easier to formulate a definitive analysis. Few actors have ever evoked such a vivid sense of ambivalence when I have attempted to reflect upon their cinematic careers. It continues to amaze me how Penn can offer one performance that is emotionally affecting and authentic and then immediately follow it with a role dominated by relentless scenery chewing. Is Sean Penn a good actor? I don’t think I’ll ever know.