With all the sequels and prequels these days there seems to only be room for a few serious, grown-up films to get any real attention at a time. So, if Million Dollar Baby hogs the limelight, then the Hotel Rwandas of the world sort of flit through smaller theaters and then to video. Last years The Assassination of Richard Nixon received virtually no buzz despite the presence of a few terrific actors and an incendiary premise with implications for modern politics.
The film tells the true story of Sam Bicke, an office furniture salesman who feels his life isn't really under his control. Bicke hopes to open a tire delivery service with his best friend (Don Cheadle) and maybe regain the love of his estranged wife (Naomi Watts). But every step of the way Sam's plans are derailed by forces somewhat outside of his control: His boss directs him to misinform customers, his wife starts seeing someone new, his application for a small business loan hits a snag, etc... Sam starts to buckle under all this pressure until he explodes.
The unique thing about the story of Sam Bicke, however, is that, as portrayed by Penn, he doesn't seem to have been too well balanced to begin with. This isn't quite Falling Down, but it's not Taxi Driver either. Sam fancies himself as a politically conscious individual, but mostly just talks back to Nixon's ever present image on the TV. He also tries to join the Black Panther movement, going as far as to suggest that they start up an integrated organization (the name he suggests is too hilarious for me to spoil here) but his views are unfocused at best.
However, what's really striking about the film (and what might have contributed to its inability to reach an audience) is the strange disconnect between the way Penn plays the character and the way the filmmakers seem to treat him. Penn's intensity here is so extreme that his Bicke is nearly unhinged from the start: He's an antisocial nutjob who can barely pass for normal on a good day. It's not that Penn can't control his performance; There are stretches where he's sublimating his rage, clinging to sanity like his life depends on it. But the film shows us a very normal wife who views him (at first, at least) as a flawed but redeemable husband, a very normal friend who trusts him, and a typical boss who considers him a terrific salesman. All this while he stammers and sweats his nervous way through each uncomfortable encounter.
It's a little discombobulating to have Bicke's personality and the film's style at odds like this. Similarly, it's strange how Bicke's paranoia seems like pure nuttiness (his anger at Nixon, who was up to all sorts of nefarious stuff at the time, still appears to be delusional) but the film seems like it wants to make a grander socio-political statement. Perhaps this is baggage that Penn brings along as an outspoken political activist. When a guy who actually traveled to Iraq to personally investigate President Bush's WMD charges makes a film where his character accuses the president of corruption, there's no way to avoid looking for parallels. That's the inevitable consequence.
But it's not entirely clear what the connection is. The time of the film's setting was filled with protest, turmoil and anger, complete with an endless war and economic hardship, so comparisons are fair. But Bicke's dementia is largely personal. He doesn't look out at the sickness of the world the way Travis Bickle did, but rather, in a way, he overreacts to every day hardships until he truly snaps. The film doesn't have Bicke's troubled mind and the symbolic ways it manifests quite worked out (Bickle steeled himself with exercise and self-mutilation while Bicke senselessly kills a dog) and his "You talkin' to me" moment is much more introspective and less aggressive, but it's Penn's immersion in the uncomfortable role that gives the film its fire. His compelling performance keeps the film interesting which is a lucky thing since it's pretty much a one man show (Watts and Cheadle are underutilized.)
Given the short 95-minute running time and modest thematic reach, the film ultimately comes off as a truncated attempt to revisit the great paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s. Still, in this megaplex era that's worth a look.