Watching Sean Penn‘s stupendously self-important “The Last Face” is an exercise in multi-layered torture. You’re not sure what hurts more: seeing accomplished actors Javier Bardem and Charlize Theron choke on laughably pompous dialogue or remembering that once-upon-a-time Penn directed real movies like “The Pledge” and “Into The Wild,” before he became a walking-talking political cartoon of Hollywood elitism riding on a high horse to save poor refugees “who are just like us!”
“Before I met Miguel, I was an idea I didn’t know. I didn’t really exist,” Wren (Theron) tells us in her superfluous voice-over narration, near the beginning of the film, as if to remind us of another insult Penn casually hurtles at his audience like a wrecking ball. With a misogynist brush, screenwriter Erin Dignam characterizes the movie’s central protagonist as an incredibly weak woman, who relies on men to understand her life and surroundings.
If it’s not Dr. Miguel (Bardem), it’s the ghost of her father, whose work she inherited and is now battling within herself to understand. She’s chief of the Medicines du Monde (MdM) volunteer organization, except that she consistently follows and doesn’t lead throughout the film, at one point her orders deliberately ignored. She meets Miguel in a Sierra Leone Refugee Camp, where he’s been stationed for a long time and is so unfazed by the war zone surrounding him that he listens to Red Hot Chili Peppers while preforming gruesome (and one would think, difficult?) surgeries.
On the field, Wren finds her old friend Helene (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a constantly-grumpy Dr. Farber (Jared Harris), and meets a French doctor who’s joined the volunteer group after his wife passed away. His name is Doctor Love (Jean Reno, who has grounds to sue after some of the dialogue he’s given here) – a name that is, unfathomably, the least ridiculous thing about him. At one point, when Wren jokes around about finding someone to grab for marriage, everyone laughs except Dr. Love. He cuts the air with “it’s not grabbing. It’s loving.” Somehow the actors managed to keep a straight face, but Theron’s tiny wince indicates that she could have pinched herself at that exact moment to make sure she’s not stuck in some kind of parodist’s sick nightmare. All of these doctors are there to save the innocents who are slaughtered as a result of civil war, but Penn and Dignam excruciatingly try to weave a tale of strong love and connection between Miguel and Wren in the process.
“The Last Face” is War, Romance, Love, and Humanity all jumbled through capital importance and puffed up chests; directed, edited, scored (by Hans Zimmer, no less) and written in such fetid style that it’s impossible to take any of it seriously. The list of bizarre melodramatic sentimentality that comes out of nowhere – like the way Helene makes her life-changing announcement where we see how much of a true asshole Miguel is, or Wren’s outbursts of hysteria as she literally cries out “you never loved me!!” – is only second to the grotesque arrogance seeping through the characterization of Africans in the film.
An obligatory closing speech at the end about refugees and their dreams ultimately reveals the hypocritical offense that Sean Penn is guilty of; not a single black person is treated as anything more than a one-dimensional being that exists to be pitied and saved by good-hearted white folk. An especially brutal scene near the end immediately comes to mind as the most egregious of them all, as pity and sympathy make way for gratuitous sensationalism and the very worst kind of cinema – the kind that tries to manipulate our feelings in such awfully transparent ways only to end up ridiculing and grossly offending its subject. Shameful.
There’s zero depth to the unbelievable bond forged between Wren and Miguel – the actors try their hardest to pull out good performance even while Theron slightly gags during one of her grandstanding moments of triumph – and Penn’s scenes of romance only serve to discombobulate the tone of the film to the point of no return. It’s a Chanel ad with the sophistication of a hand-lotion commercial as Wren and Miguel gaze at one another through each other’s hands, sandwiched between harrowing scenes of war and affliction. It’s, all told, a preposterous and pretentious mess of a film, and all the good intentions in the world don’t mean anything when the execution is as ham-fisted as it is here. [F]