The mightier Penn

He transformed before us from a Caravaggio-like dancing teen to a love-handled bad guy. While Chris Penn has never received the attention of his older brother, he's deserved it -- and oh, so much more.

Published July 22, 2004 10:52PM (EDT)

You've seen him as a good cop, and/or a bad cop. Or a mobster. Or yet another fat Irish cop. But there is a whole lot more soul and nuance to Chris Penn than is immediately evident in the mutton-headed roles he's been pigeonholed in.

It's hard to tell if Chris Penn has benefited as much as he's suffered professionally from the relation to his brother, the Great Sean, The Great Ahctor with a Capital Ah. He's just as talented as Sean -- just a lot less cocky. Chris is an expert at the one complicated emotional state Sean doesn't really display much of -- red-faced humiliation. Ego crush. The hyper-vulnerable, exposed weakness of the bed-wetter, the fuckup, the sad sack, the hapless loser, the beta male -- which, I think, in terms of pound-per-pound acting skill, is one of the hardest things to do. I think it's kind of easy for a skilled, handsome actor with an imagination and an ego to act like the sexiest mahfugger in town -- James Dean, Marlon Brando, Sean Penn -- but it takes someone really fearless to look openly lame, shamed, screwed-up, dumb and scared. A character who knows he is not and will never be Slick King Fabulous, while he does not inspire oiled-torso photo spreads in Vanity Fair, is ultimately way more intriguing and sympathetic, for that is the painful secret at the core of being a human being -- nobody is Slick King Fabulous, even when he is. This is a generous giving of the fragile, flawed self as opposed to a flexing of dreamy ego-might. As Prince says, in "Pop Life," everybody wants to be on top, but Chris Penn beautifully demonstrates how rich the agonies of life can be about a third of the way down.

Chris Penn is underrated for a few reasons -- most obviously, he is clearly not one of the Atkins billions who cotton to Hollywood vanity; he gives off the enviable impression that he is constitutionally incapable of trying too hard and is too real with himself to really give a shit about his waistline. The only reason this is unfortunate is that his uh, "relaxed" physique has deprived us of seeing him in a wider range of roles, let alone leading roles. Plus, he never got to enjoy the interesting, respectful cult love that gets thrown at weaselly, pretty-boy oddballs and whining perverts like Crispin Glover or Vincent Gallo. But he could have had it if he'd wanted it enough to be vain: Chris Penn was beautiful once, prettier than Sean ever was. His eyes are bigger, bluer and sadder; he had big round curls in his rust-colored hair, and thick, pouty red lips ... he'd have made a perfect Caravaggio subject as a teen, the innocent, betoga'd orgy-boy holding a wooden bowl of grapes.

But beauty is fleeting, and Chris Penn sacrificed his for a darker medicine, which will ultimately attract fewer but more devoted admirers, and endure longer.

The first time we all got a good look at Sean Penn's younger brother was in the high school football drama "All The Right Moves" (1983), which I was going to joke was originally titled "All The Wrong Movies," but in fairness (and I'm not taking any shit about this), it is surprisingly good, for a greasy kid sports drama -- a kind of dire, tooth-clenchy, beer-swilly "Deer Hunter"-like portrait of poverty-line, steel-town Polish Americans for the Clearasil becreamed.

The early '80s was an odd time for female beauty, as evidenced by the positing of Lea Thompson in a pair of doubleknit marching-band pants as the hot female lead. I've never really understood the Lea Thompson mystique -- girls with heart-shaped heads and eyes that far apart always look like they suffered from fetal-alcohol syndrome to me. But she's pretty good, at least in this one, and in what would now be considered an impossibly European love scene, her body-double goes to both second and third base with Tom Cruise's finger doubles, and she actually shows full-frontal in one scene that also involves Tom's buttocks. There is also an actual split-second of schlong, but God knows whose it is.

In their dead-end town, Tom and Chris Penn play stressed-out Catholic jocks trying to earn college football scholarships to avoid forfeiting their lives to the local steel mill (where their dads and dads' dads all worked from sunup to sundown and had horrible industrial accidents unto death, etc.). They play in the trenches of a dead-broke, nothing-but-the-extra-oil-on-our-foreheads team of homely, meat-necked guys in the full travesty of adolescence, chanting, fighting, foaming at the mouth and in their pants with desperate, culty team zeal. Chris is Tom Cruise's dunced-out and acne-spackled jock pal and key subplot -- he's the star of the team; a hormonal slob with great gridiron talent who, somewhere around plot point 1, gets word that he's received a full ride at USC despite his 2.0 GPA (so you know something terrible is going to happen to him). There is a particularly awkward and gratuitous locker room scene, which I suppose was intended to show interracial solidarity between the equally impoverished Polish and African-American kids, wherein the funky Negroes teach the unfunky white boys how to dance. I guess African-Americans have been teaching us rhythmless, left-hooved honkies how to dance on film since Mr. Bojangles tapped Shirley Temple up a staircase, and I guess it is no more racist than one of those Aunt Jemima cookie jars or salt-shaker sets, but it still makes me want to puke fatback into a top hat.

There is a great little moment where Chris really captures the unbearable pressure of being a small-town football hero, with all the older, burnt-out steel mill yahoos living vicariously through his youth, speed and unsquandered potential; he is on a bus, going to a big game, and there are tears in his eyes as he mumbles over his rosary beads, shitting bricks over the entire townful of stress hysterics he carries in his duffle bag. Somewhere around plot point 2, Chris gets his white-trash Catholic girlfriend knocked up and has to turn down his USC scholarship and get married. Tom Cruise's character goes to "congratulate" him at the sorry, low-budget shotgun wedding. Chris pulls off a very complicated emotional maneuver: He meets Cruise's eyes, as Cruise is giving him that sad, "Life sucks, doesn't it brother?" sympathy power stare.

"Hey," says Chris, with heartbreaking good humor, his eyes wide and insistent. "Hey! Look at me. Man, I'm gonna have a kid. That's more important than any college. I got what I want. OK? I got what I want."

It's a great little moment, because the character is not only trying to convince Tom Cruise of this sentiment -- he's also trying to convince himself that he's already convinced of this sentiment. The audience knows that the character is in total denial. Even at that tender age, Chris Penn knew how to make that sophisticated emotional choice: Someone whose life is going down the pipes would be forced, out of survival instinct, to believe it was what they actually wanted.

Chris turns in a similar but very surprising performance in "Footloose" (1984) --which was, for all intents and purposes, an all-honky version of "Fame" for the Dust Belt. Hickweed teens, livin' in a Christian town where dancin' and rock 'n' roll are illegal, suddenly get their world turned upside down by the slick city ways of skinny-necktie-wearin' Kevin Bacon, and are moved by his charismatic example to turn their backs on Jesus and be carried away by the visceral, crotch-scorching power of Kenny Loggins. Kid Bacon is cast as the epitome of smart-mouthed sexiness and badass cool and says stuff like "Jump back!" in a kind of quasi-Ebonics Cab Calloway drawl when he means to express astonishment. There are a lot of synth drum solos, particularly when Bacon gets really frustrated and upset and has to smoke cigarettes and listen to John Cougar Mellencamp and burst into a whole jazz-dance gymnastic routine at the old mill. Young Sarah Jessica Parker has a featured role; it is funny to see the familiar faces so young, all shiny and bumpy and coated with a layer of subcutaneous baby fat.

Chris Penn plays Willard, a genuine, convincing, cowboy hat and coveralls-wearing dumbfuck whose jaw hangs wide open on its hinges to express naive confusion. He has a richly textured little scene when he, Sarah Jessica, Bacon and the hot preacher's daughter (Lori Singer) go on a double date to a honky-tonk saloon in the next town, so that Bacon can expose his rustic friends to the unreasonable satanic pleasures of two-stepping. Sarah Jessica keeps asking him to dance. He keeps refusing, over and over again, making excuses. Finally Bacon asks him why. He shuffles his feet. He leans over to Bacon's ear.

"I can't dance. At all."

You know he is not joking by the intensity and embarrassment in his delivery -- it was very personal. He might have been saying: "I can't skinny-dip. I only have one testicle." In a series of cutaways between Chris Penn and the dance floor, you see a gorgeously constructed little evolution. His shame, with another beer, becomes seething frustration. Sarah Jessica begins dancing with some other guy. Chris' frustration becomes sneering jealousy. Sarah Jessica is having too good a time, being spun, dipped, disco do-si-do'd. More beer -- Chris gets drunker, surlier -- the testosterone builds to orange-alert levels as he stares a hole through Sarah Jessica's dance partner's cowboy shirt, building up a predatory head of steam. Finally, in a perfectly orchestrated drunken climax, Chris' fists do a nice Kenny Loggins dance on the townie's face. But oh, what an elegant buildup.

But it isn't the most amazing thing about Chris Penn's "Footloose" performance. This would not be a piece of Hollywood Fun Young Dung if the Kevin Bacon character didn't make it his mission to teach Chris Penn how to dance. At the midpoint when this idea is introduced, it is inconceivable that Chris Penn will ever be able to dance. He's just not the jazzy, Bob Fosse, lots-of-unnecessary-arm-movements type of physical guy Kevin Bacon is. You can't see him landing the audition for the film in the first place -- you'd think he would have derided himself too much for looking too gay.

In a montage that makes the viewer's intestines cringe with fear, Bacon teaches Chris how to dance, to (of all things) the gay anthem "Let's Hear It for the Boy." OK -- the guys bust some moves that would make a Broadway chorus boy feel like he'd been appliquéd with a big scarlet Q, but it's kind of adorable, and Chris brings a surprising amount of spirit, integrity and, yes, even some twinkle-toed talent to some truly vigorous and spurting choreography-a-go-go. He really gives it up, even though part of him probably couldn't help but feel that his big brother would never let him pee standing up in the house again. Chris Penn pulls off a phenomenal dramatic arc in "Footloose," in that where he ends up is so mind-blowing, considering where he started, it gives the sensitive viewer the visual equivalent of the bends.

At the peak of his physical gorgeousness, instead of surfing the wave of slobbery teen panty steam created by "Footloose" and becoming a subsidiary young Hollywood Brat Packer, Chris seemed determined to cleanse himself of the bubblegum dancing-boy lightweight stigma and made an interesting choice to take a heavy role in Clint Eastwood's "Pale Rider" (1985) -- an eco-conscious western in that it was made entirely of recycled westerns. While it's a worthless movie that should have been pilloried for riding the razor-thin line between homage and plagiarism ("Shane" and "Yojimbo" were stripped to the bolts for their seminal clichés), Chris plays his nasty Bad Son of the Bad Rich Guy role as though he has personal demons to work out. Though decades younger, he impressively holds his own facing down Clint Eastwood, holding Clint's slitty-eyed mad-dog stare with a nice, insouciant, fuck you, you poncho-wearing old fruit look of his own; he also gets to rape the most monotonous, droney and nasal young brunette actress the screen has seen since Susan Strasberg played the deaf hippie girl in "Psych-Out."

Sean Penn is phenomenal because he never does the most obvious, first-thought thing -- he adds a considered layer of character spin on top of every reaction, such as: He smiles when he's being threatening, because he's amused at the thought of kicking your ass.

OK, that's great, very impressive -- but Chris Penn does this other thing -- he makes you seamlessly believe in characters so much you barely even notice them. It's a more inverted, egoless choice -- he always serves the role instead of serving his career. Sean is a showboat, a scenery chewer; Chris is the opposite -- a stealth bomb.

They do not look comfortable together. One scene in "At Close Range" (1986) -- to my knowledge, the only film they acted together in -- looks particularly forced. They are supposed to be stoned, watching cartoons, laughing together on the couch, but it looks as if they haven't had a whole lot of happy, playful downtime together as brothers -- there seems to be a painful, ugly tension between them. (You can make brash assumptions about what enduring day-to-day life with Sean Penn must be like based on what's happened to the formerly open, beautiful and blithely cheerful face of his wife, Robin Wright.) Another scene features Chris Penn playing a hilarious game of Monopoly with his real-life grandmother, suggesting that life at the Penn compound didn't wholly resemble Dave Pelzer's "A Child Called It."

Around the beginning of the '90s, the beautiful, sad, innocent, Caravaggio teen and gay-idol dancing boy Chris Penn died and a new one began to spring from his ashes -- a hypersensitive, red-faced, manic-depressive tough guy Chris Penn, with a deathly black sense of humor and a propensity to scream a lot like Jackie Gleason.

In the abysmal action disgrace "Future Kick" (1991), Chris looks a little heavier around the psyche and jowls. He plays "Bang," a cyber-assassin who frequents strip clubs, gets beat up by kickboxing champion Don "the Dragon" Wilson, and bleeds bubbling yellow strips of two-part foam insulation.

Chris turns in the only credible performance in Quentin Tarantino's overrated "Reservoir Dogs" (1992) as Nice Guy Eddie, velour-tracksuit-wearing gangster. He sounds like he's uncomfortable with the dumb dialogue at the beginning, when he's playing grab-ass with Michael Madsen, so he doesn't deliver the lines very well: "Daddy, did you see that? He tried to fuck me! ... You've been locked up such a long time, I thought you'd love this USDA prime beef."

Amusing but dumb eighth-grade white-trash homophobe histrionics, like most things Tarantino (who I think should spend a couple of months scrubbing the skidmarks out of penitentiary-issue boxer shorts, he is so adolescently obsessed with blood, shit, weapons, violence and anal rape). Chris makes up for lost time and is able to redeem his role by doing a lot of snarly gun pointing and sweaty screeching into one of those cumbersome old car-phones.

Unfortunately, this dumb, macho mook gig became a pivotal role for Chris Penn, in that he was rarely allowed to play roles that were very different, ever again.

For example, instead of playing a mobster, he played virtually the same character, only with a badge, in the underrated "True Romance" (1993). Chris plays a cop opposite Tom Sizemore, another actor who got ghettoized and plays only cops or psycho scum. There's not much to Chris' part in this one, but it's a keenly calibrated little performance and the second time in one year he got to die in a major shootout at the end of a movie.

I can't say if I really like Robert Altman or his much adored "Short Cuts" (1993), based on the Raymond Carver short stories. In some cases, it seems like his casting director used what he knew about the nearby Hollywood tidepool and psychologically typecast actors in roles that resonated so truthfully with them, it renders the film nearly unwatchable in that it gives me the skeevy sensation I am complicit in violating the actors, psychically -- I feel I am witnessing some kind of quasi-consensual mental rape that the actors didn't realize the full ramifications of when they signed their contracts.

Chris Penn is almost scarily perfect as the sexually confused, pool-cleaning husband of phone-sex operator cum jaded nasty hosebag Jennifer Jason Leigh. He is emasculated, confused, weak, lost in his sense of himself and his grip on manhood -- he gets inarticulately upset, and Jennifer Jason, his way too adult wifey, manipulates and infantalizes her big baby schlub back into submission. "Aww, bear," she coos to him, in bed, when she senses that he feels rejected and jealous and wounded. "You wanna fuck?" she goo-goos, shoving an armload of plastic toddler toys off their unmade bed -- the devouring mother, vagina dentate, a Freudian psychodrama in sweatpants. "Let's fuck."

Chris goes through a squirming maggot ball of emotions: powerlessness, horniness, wanting to be a good dad, hating his wife, wanting his wife, fury, disgust, helplessness, despair ... all these fester until later in the movie when they get the better of him and move him to lose his shit in a fit of bull-elephant must and beat some girl's head in with a rock.

He was a love-handled Irish traffic cop in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Love, Julie Newmar" (1995), and was flirted with by Wesley Snipes. He got a little fatter, and did "Mulholland Falls" (1996), which features a more or less indistinguishable bunch of cops and gangsters. I can't remember if Chris was a cop or a gangster.

But then came the jewel in the crown of Christopher Penn's acting career, and this was Abel Ferrara's "The Funeral" (1996), where Chris plays a mentally ill suicidal gangster. Either Chris Penn has the best imagination ever captured on film, or the Penn boys' emotional color wheels are naturally so supremely black that they make Sylvia Plath's look like sample chips for baby's bedroom. Chris was able to inhabit a Jungian shadow-self that any sane angel would fear to tread, in such a hardcore and chilling performance it makes it impossible not to presume that he has actually endured some bone-splinteringly dark nights of the soul.

This is the apotheosis of Chris Penn. He is an Italian gangster hovering over the open casket of his little brother (Vincent Gallo, an ideal corpse). His face paints an entire road map of emotions. He grabs Gallo's suit. "My baby brother," he whimpers, his mouth grimacing in despair. He dissolves into tears. Then, he remembers himself: He's a mobster. The tears turn ugly. He starts hacking out involuntary grief noises that get louder and louder until they escalate into a screaming, spitting, casket-pounding fury. Christopher Walken and other black-clad, sallow-eyed Italo-actorini try to restrain him. Chris Penn's bloodshot eyes go momentarily wide and satanic -- a murderous plot appears in his brain like a fever blister. Then -- he knows it won't help -- he dissolves into blubbering grief again. Then, with a swallow, he snaps his head, pulls himself together, wipes his face, wetly kisses Walken on the face. He is drained, he's wrecked, but he is OK to go to the buffet table.

Nobody really noticed this performance, for some reason, but Chris Penn pulled off as good a shit fit, in that scene, as DeNiro's in the jail cell in "Raging Bull."

But that's not all. Chris also sings the blues in "The Funeral," like a crazy person, and it's kind of great -- uninhibited, like a drunk and miserable Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Then he becomes the devil incarnate when confronted with a teenage prostitute. I mean, he really becomes the devil incarnate. "You want 10 dollars? I'm gonna give you 20 dollars. You know why? Because you sold your soul! Don't fuck with the devil!!"

He screams, in a kind of disembodied, high, almost Joe Pesci-voice, as he rapes the crying young girl. The beast has possessed him, and it's truly a horrible scene, because only someone who knows how terrifying and hopelessly miserable it is to be insane could have done this scene as well and as gravely as he did it. You can tell he didn't phone it in, by how well he plays the emotional aftermath in later scenes; terrible self-loathing, the starving need for kindness and mercy and understanding that he doesn't feel he deserves.

Why didn't Chris Penn get jettisoned to stardom by that performance? Was he too fat? Too scary? Benicio del Toro got noticed for that movie, and you can't understand a single goddamned word he says. He swallowed his lines like they were made of bacon, and yet he's a big fat slob winning Oscars. Why? Too many Penns already on the podium? It's a mystery, because that performance, while it will not make you feel all warm and snuggly inside, is one of the best acting jobs of the 20th century, and I'm throwing laurels at it, if nobody else is.

It all goes downhill from "The Funeral." Chris got fatter, the roles got dumber. He plays -- guess what? -- a cop, in "Trail of a Serial Killer"(1997), a movie that should have been relegated down to the holding cells below NYU's Tisch School for the Arts as a kind of cinematic "Red Asphalt" object lesson in bad filmmaking. Then there's "Deceiver" (1997), a lie-detector drama in which Chris Penn plays the "dumb" cop who gets "deceived" by chronic Brit over-actor Tim Roth, the "smart" criminal. The script sounds like it was written by the guy who writes copy for SkyMall catalogs after reading too much Jim Thompson: "I'm rich," sneers Roth. "Loaded. Filthy with it!"

"Temporal lobe epileptics may stand on furniture, try to undress, or seem frightened," exposits a court psychiatrist ... cut to Tim Roth, playing a temporal-lobe epileptic, standing on furniture, trying to undress, seeming frightened, in that order.

There's lots of puerile, Hitchcockian back-up-while-zooming-in nausea-cam work -- oooh, noir-y. Chris spends the film giving Roth lots of squinty-eyed looks of bulldog concern and bewildered haplessness. It's a snore.

In "Boy's Club" (1997), you can tell that Chris Penn has moved from grief into acceptance of the fact that the scripts he is getting are increasingly second-class. He looks like he weighs about 300 pounds, and he's beginning to eke out lines in which he can pull stunts, little super-subtle comedy moments with which he can at least amuse himself and a couple of his crew pals while watching the dailies -- like Lenny Bruce, late in his career, Chris Penn looks as though he is playing to the band.

He's a psycho in the film (or is it a psycho cop? cop turned psycho-cop killer?) He has a badge, and a gunshot wound, and he's hiding out in the forest clubhouse of a bunch of 13-year-old boys. He's a prick, drinking Jack Daniels, being casually cruel and perverse, blaming his victims for the nasty things he does to them. Chris Penn is the best staring, fat evil toad since Paul Sorvino, and his performance would be pretty funny if the film weren't so heavy-handed and jejune.

It gets worse. He costarred with the sub-electrifying Steven Baldwin in "One Tough Cop" (1998). He's so big, he can barely run, and it's just embarrassing to have an actor of his caliber playing supporting donkey boy to a black leather loveseat like Steve Baldwin who, with stocking cap and carefully manicured three-day beard, is trying his best to foment a star turn by trying to act like a macho hardass by trying to act like Alec Baldwin. The dialogue is kind of priceless in that it's so phenomenally bad, it sounds like Dan Brown of "The Da Vinci Code" tried real hard to write something gritty for Scorsese:

"You're not gonna believe dis. Besides raping the poor woman? They beat in her head with a statue of the Madonna. They carved crucifixes all over her body. I counted 40 of 'em. Then, they pissed on her. What kind of a animal would do dis?"

"What we probably got is a coupla pipe heads wacked out of their minds on rock." Ooooh. Streety!

I believe the bizarre and enjoyable film "Cement" (1999) marked a breakthrough into a new kind of character for Chris Penn; he plays a bad cop, OK, but one who likes to encase people who piss him off in cement, and slowly; he ties the guy up, standing, and lets his feet dry, he talks to him, he tells weird stories. He pours more concrete up to the victim's hips. He is dementedly oblivious to his own cruelty. Chris has mastered a great way of looking off into middle distance while he's executing a horrible task, with an expression that says, This is my fucked-up fate. Oh well, as if he had no control over the atrocities he commits. That's an amusing sociopath. It seems like, after his slurry of mediocre stink bombs, Chris found a solid kind of sarcastic, weird levity to tap into in this role, which is really fun to watch.

Comedy seems to be the direction Chris Penn is going -- he could be our generation's heavy-looking heavy with wicked comic timing, like the late, great J.T. Walsh.

In "Corky Romano" (2001) he essentially plays the exact same mobster with the exact same pathos he would have in any other gangster drama -- his character could have walked right out of Abel Ferrara's mook nightmare -- only this time the character is a latent homosexual. Ah, the rich texture and dimension -- you can practically smell the Drakkar Noir wafting right off the screen.

And in "Starsky & Hutch" (2004), he plays a hilarious, taunting asshole cop.

I think I see a pattern emerging. Jump back!

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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