Why does Sean Penn remind me of James Cagney? If I met Jimmy Markum in a dark alley, I think he would have more remorse about killing me than would Cody Jarrett (Cagney’s character in “White Heat”), but both Cagney and Penn are great at expressing the heat of conflicting desires — it’s in their posture, in the way they move their feet, in the set of their shoulders, in their faces. Both of them make other actors seem slow and cool. Both of them make every script unpredictable. Yes, I know before I see “Mystic River” or “Milk” that mayhem and grief will ensue, but somehow, as the movie unfolds, Sean Penn makes me think that he might just evade his fate after all.
Actually I like that last line – it’s the comparison that’s the problem. Why does Penn remind her of Cagney? I don’t get that feeling. In fact, I think of them as opposites. Cagney had energy — and that energy transferred through the screen to the audience. You got jazzed watching him. You left the theater with more energy than when you entered. Penn, while a great, great actor, is exhausting. Sorry. He saps our strength. At least he saps mine. Two and a half years ago I did a piece on him for MSNBC, and watched — again— most of his movies. I remember watching She’s So Lovely, lids at half-mast, and when John Travolta shows up it’s like a breath of fresh air. Yes! Energy! After writing that piece I had to see a shrink. I’m not joking. Try it sometime. Watch 10 Sean Penn movies in a row and see where you wind up.
Actually — Jesus! — I just re-read my piece, and I make this very comparison back then. With Cagney as the anti-Penn:
Watch “She’s So Lovely,” an awful title for a flawed film, in which Penn plays Eddie Quinn, another small-timer who — I think this is the point — goes crazy when his girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn) lies to him about the bruises on her face. He spends the next 10 years in a mental institution because of this lie. When he gets out, she’s married to Joey (John Travolta), a rich construction something-or-other with maybe mob ties. Travolta’s character is boldly drawn and external — the way Cagney was always external — and the movie becomes fun for a moment. We draw energy from Travolta. Then Penn’s character shows up again, all intricate and internalized and self-contained, and the fun disappears. We lean forward. We try to understand. In this way Penn draws energy from us. He exhausts us. He’s not much fun.
I don't mean to disparage Penn here but Smiley. At the least, we each see something different in, or draw something different from, Sean Penn.
Enough of that. Here’s a shot of Penelope Cruz. Have a nice day:
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