Penn hits a new stride

Instead of stepping out, actor takes skill to new plateau

December 23, 2003|By Chris Vognar | Chris Vognar,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

It wasn't long ago that Sean Penn publicly contemplated quitting acting, much as he quit smoking. Too much stress. Not enough fun. Too many mindless scripts crossing his desk. He got out of Los Angeles and moved his family north, to serene Marin County. Some thought he might actually walk away from performing and become a full-time director.

Instead, he has taken his considerable combination of skill and raw power to a new plateau. His volcanic turn as a Boston tough guy mourning his slain daughter in Mystic River has left critics scrambling for Brando comparisons.

In 21 Grams, which opens in Baltimore on Friday, he works at an equally high level of emotional intensity as an ailing math professor seeking redemption.

Always considered one of the best, the 43-year-old actor, known for his quick temper and uncompromising principles, is in the kind of zone that most performers can only dream of. And when the great ones get in a zone, you can practically feel them burning through the screen (think Robert De Niro's two great '70s performances for Martin Scorsese in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver). When you watch Mystic River and 21 Grams, you see an actor working from somewhere impossibly deep within himself, with no clutter of ego, thought or technique getting in the way.

Even those of us who find Mystic River a tad overrated can't argue with the praise heaped on Penn, no matter how lofty. The New York Times opines that Penn gives "not only one of the best performances of the year, but also 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." That sounds ridiculous - except it also sounds about right.

There are moments in Mystic River when Penn simply disappears inside the leather-clad, tattooed Jimmy Markum, and you feel like you're really watching a vengeful father wrestle with (and lose to) his tortured soul. This is where the Brando comparisons come into play.

The best Method actors - and Brando was, by most accounts, the best of them all - gave the impression of laying bare some deep-seated internal conflict. They also had the ability to tone it down in the blink of an eye; James Dean was just learning this trick when he died.

Penn could always tone it down, up and sideways. But in his most recent run, he seems to have found a new starting point, a bottomless reservoir of passion.

Penn's groove comes two years after his maudlin turn in I Am Sam, a one-note performance seen by many as a cynical Oscar grab. (It almost worked: He got a best-actor nomination). More impressive, it comes at a time when Penn seems to be happier than ever.

You used to see Penn exploding in public and assume that his rage provided fuel for his craft. But as Penn mellows out - lashing out less, doing more press, smiling in public - he raises his professional bar.

That's saying quite a bit for an actor who seemed to burst on the scene fully formed in the early '80s.

It was hard to see him in Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982 and Bad Boys in 1983 without being astonished by his range.

With Fast Times, he created a new kind of movie fool, the shameless, pot-addled surfer dude who thinks nothing of having a pepperoni pizza delivered to history class. But just one year later, in Bad Boys, he brooded well enough to lift a standard prison movie beyond its station. His wounded tough guy, in the joint for running over a teen in a bungled robbery get-away, can be seen as a youthful antecedent to Jimmy Markum: dangerous but so pained that you can't look away.

Then came the Madonna years, marked by headlines of violent outbursts.

In 1987, he spent 34 days in prison for decking an amateur paparazzo on the set of Colors. (He spent much of his cell time reading James Thurber.) He became known as a surly drinker, got divorced, then married Robin Wright.

He did some directing (The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, The Pledge). And he kept turning in great performances: At Close Range, Casualties of War, Dead Man Walking, She's So Lovely, Hurlyburly, Sweet and Lowdown.

If he had walked away, he would have done so as perhaps the best actor of his generation. Instead, he has reached some extraordinary midcareer point that makes you wonder just how good he could get.

Keep in mind that Penn has garnered few "nice guy" points over the years, a la Tom Hanks. His acclaim comes strictly from what you've seen on-screen over the past 20 years.

But his 2003 resume finds him heading toward a new stratosphere. Time will tell if he continues to find projects as worthy of his talent as Mystic River and 21 Grams. If he does, we probably won't be comparing the next generation of great actors to Marlon Brando. We'll be comparing them to Sean Penn.

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