Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 12, 2005 5:07 pm 
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Dreary implosion

It's hard to understand the positive critical reaction to this grim little character study of a pathetic loser who turns violent -- and the general approval of Sean Penn's overwrought, solemn performance -- till one remembers that using hijacked planes as weapons to destroy key American symbols is a hot topic, and that Penn's reputation as an actor is at an all-time high following his Oscar win last year.

Penn plays (and how!) Samuel Bicke, a man in an unnamed city who's estranged from his wife, exiled by his brother from a tire business, and, as the story begins, forced to be a salesman in an office furniture showroom. His glib, cynical boss (Jack Thompson) condescendingly offers Bicke Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale (this is the early Seventies; they're both way out of date) and tells him Richard Nixon is the greatest salesman who ever lived. Nixon got elected by telling the country he'd get us out of Vietnam, the boss points out, failed to do it, and then got elected a second time making the same claim. What a salesman! Bicke has a couple of big hangups. He thinks people ought to tell the truth and life ought to be fair. He also thinks his wife will take him back. The trouble is, he couldn't see the truth if it hit him over the head; and he's too busy whining (and, in Penn's clinker of a performance, stammering, sweating and wrinkling his brow) to see how life might be enjoyed. The main truth is that he's a stupid jerk. A fake-looking Adolphe Menjou moustache and cheap suits complete the picture.

The film has a voiceover of Bicke reading a letter to Leonard Bernstein that tells his whole story up to the moment of his final abortive exploit. Bicke is constantly bummed out. His harried wife, played by Naomi Watts (not at her best here) wears a short-skirted uniform waitressing at a restaurant to support the kids; all Bicke does is object to the dress and unctuously beg to be taken back. Every scene telegraphs in huge letters THIS GUY IS A CLUELESS LOSER -- which means he's not going to succeed at the sales job, the wife isn't going to take him back, he isn't going to get the loan for a kooky mobile tire repair service he's dreamed up with his long suffering black pal, Bonny (cheerily played by Don Cheadle), and when he tries to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House, he certainly isn't going to succeed at that.

However interesting this narrative (based on a true news event) is or isn't as a subject -- different treatment certainly might have made it interesting -- Penn's grimacing, drooling, whimpering pathos makes the movie painful and embarrassing to watch.

Bicke is halfway between Travis Bickle and Willy Loman. He's little and flawed and self-deceiving like Loman, while, like Bickle, he blames his dysfunctions on the world and plots a megalomaniac revenge. Almost every other scene has a TV in it with Nixon nattering away. The office equipment store has a whole battery of them. What kind of office equipment is that? This intrusion shows how heavy-handed the movie's efforts to be relevant and political are.Travis Bickle is a powerful character and Willy Loman is a tragic one; we're meant, perhaps, to sympathize with Samuel Bicke. We've all felt like this. There's a time in all our lives when others want us to do things we can't do, when we feel forced to give up what we care for, when we feel like losers. Only the thing is, Bicke really is a loser. He has no visible redeeming quality. His business scheme is so naïve and miscalculated he seems retarded. He needs help. The question is what? Therapy? Institutionalization? Membership in a terrorist organization, maybe? In what some think a funny scene he takes in a contribution to the Black Panthers and says he knows what they're going through and suggests they change their name to the Zebras to include whites.

Just as the movie telegraphs all its points, Penn telegraphs his. When he's meant to be imploding, it looks like he's going to explode and deconstruct. For a subtle, much more convincing, example of onscreen implosion, watch Kevin Bacon in The Woodsman. Bacon didn't get the Oscar for Mystic River, but maybe he should have.

When Samuel's brother Julius appears toward the end reproaching him for allowing Bonny to get in trouble, we learn that Bicke is Jewish. That's news. At the end, Naomi Watts turns up as an airport employee, and things start to seem terribly wrong for the filmmakers as well as the character and the main actor. This final terrorist episode has a kind of fresh strangeness. If the earlier parts had been made more matter of fact -- if Bicke had been played more straight by, say, a slightly dorky everyman like Adam Sandler -- it might have worked. Not, however, with Penn's obtrusive rug-chewing and the heavy-handed determinism of the screenplay. But even done better, you would still wonder why this story had to be told. It's an inexplicable footnote to the history of late twentieth-century American history, and it's neither instructive nor fun.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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