'The Last Face': Cannes Review

Oh, the humanity.

Sean Penn directs Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem in this drama about international aid workers struggling to sustain a romantic relationship in war-ravaged Africa.

A backdrop of Third World atrocity, suffering and merciless human-rights violations serves as the canvas for a faux-profound Hollywood love story in Sean Penn's stunningly self-important but numbingly empty cocktail of romance and insulting refugee porn, The Last Face. Beautiful movie stars — rugged, earthy Javier Bardem sporting flawless, bedroom-chic stubble, and iron butterfly Charlize Theron, wearing dewy no-makeup makeup and an excellent moisturizer — battle for 130 stultifying minutes to listen to their hearts while their souls take a hammering. Audiences are more likely to check out and just leave them to it.

Penn's body of work as a director has been uneven and often indulgent, though even flawed films like The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard have had admirable qualities and strong performances, while the more fully realized The Pledge and Into the Wild showed significant growth in terms of dramatic power and tonal command.

His fifth feature, from a script by Erin Dignam loaded with platitudinous dialogue and shallow psychology, is arguably Penn's first directorial outing that has pretty much nothing going for it. Even the handsome widescreen visuals of the wounded African landscapes — relentlessly accompanied by composer Hans Zimmer's extended lecture in musical solemnity, or by on-the-nose vocals — are rendered uninteresting by Penn's insistence on stretching every exchanged word or gesture to dreamy extremes of the most studious lyricism. Every close-up of a shuffling caterpillar, a scampering beetle, or a hand caressed by sunlight is a reminder of just how much Terrence Malick has to answer for.

The film's arrival in the final days of the Cannes competition was preceded by toxic word of mouth, and the derisive cackles at the first press screening started when opening onscreen text over a map of Africa likened the Liberian Civil War and the ongoing present-day conflict in South Sudan to the brutality of impossible love … between a man … and a woman. Unfortunately, things get only sporadically better from there in a movie that at times recalls the similarly languid Angelina-and-Brad exercise in emotional scab-picking, By the Sea. At least that stinker had the good taste not to co-opt humanitarianism as background texture.

Penn's hands-on engagement in political causes and natural disasters like the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina has been widely documented, so there's no reason to doubt his sincerity. (Though when someone rails about "a world under attack from impatient, non-solution-oriented critics," the self-righteous tone certainly rankles.)

But despite an impassioned speech by Theron's character in which she urges wealthy philanthropists to see refugees as people with lives and families and dreams "just like us," the film rarely gives individual identities to African characters. The chief exception is a tense scene near the end depicting an ugly confrontation with a female-led rebel militia posse done up like scary club kids. Elsewhere, the Africans are just bleeding wallpaper.

The main characters also have little definition beyond their roles in the field and their knotted relationship, though Dignam at least takes a stab at providing the leads with some dimension. Bardem plays Miguel, an orphaned Spaniard raised by the state, who achieved academic excellence in medicine and is fiercely committed to saving every life he can. Theron plays Wren, the daughter of a South African NGO founder who has spent her adult life making up for not being the son her late father wanted. She now runs his organization, Medecins du Monde, but only finds a sense of purpose and visibility once she's on the ground and away from the bureaucracy. Or is it only once she hooks up with swarthy Miguel? "Before I met Miguel I was an idea I had," she muses. "I didn't really exist." Oh, girl.

The film traces their romance from its tentative start, after rebel forces closing in on Monrovia in 2003 force the MDM group to evacuate; their jeep and supplies are hijacked, leaving them to proceed through the jungle on foot. Their story continues in a Sierra Leone refugee camp, punctuated by random acts of horrific violence and by Wren’s excruciating voiceover reflections about the “intoxication of intimacy” in this inhuman world.

Wren angsts constantly about the futility of their intervention. She questions the value of saving a lucky few lives while the Western world remains willfully oblivious to the devastating larger plight of a war in which children are being brainwashed into unspeakable barbarism. That and other factors lead to the gradual collapse of her relationship with Miguel, who follows her back to her isolated family estate near Cape Town to thrash out one final round of heartache in the weary vein of "Love me? You don’t even know me."

Theron and Bardem are naturally charismatic actors, and Penn and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd rarely tire of studying them in searching shots of their pained eyes brimming with tears. But they can't make these characters anything more than noble lovers in a world with no place for love. In the most hackneyed manner, they are bound together and torn apart by tortured feelings given far more weight by this clueless, trivializing film than the abject suffering to which they bear witness.

The other key players are merely along for the thankless ride. They include Adele Exarchopoulos as Wren's cousin, another aid worker whose past entanglement with Miguel yields further agonizing; Jean Reno, as the pointedly named Dr. Love, who gets stuck with a couple of the most risible lines; and poor Jared Harris, the most underused of all, who just gets to drop in a Bible quote or two while doing a generically selfless man-of-principle thing. The fact that these guys frequently leave dying patients bleeding on gurneys as they fret about Wren's crises of commitment just makes this terminally misguided movie even dumber.

Venue: Cannes Films Festival (Competition)
Production company: River Road Entertainment
Cast: Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem, Adele Exarchopoulos, Jared Harris, Jean Reno, Denise Newman, Oscar Best, Zubin Cooper, Sebelethu Bonkolo, Hopper Jack Penn, Merritt Wever, Tina Jaxa, Edner Nonez, Nigel Fisher, Ibrahim Mudawi
Director: Sean Penn

Screenwriter: Erin Dignam
Producers: Bill Pohlad, Matt Palmieri, Bill Gerber
Executive producer: Jon Kuyper
Director of photography: Barry Ackroyd
Production designer: Andrew Laws
Costume designer: Diana Cilliers
Music: Hans Zimmer
Editor: Jay Cassidy
Visual effects supervisor: Bruce Jones
Casting: Christa Schamberger, J.P. van der Merwe
Sales: Lionsgate International
Rated R, 130 minutes