Early in “The Last Face,” Javier Bardem’s dedicated and glamorous doctor character asks Charlize Theron, playing another dedicated and glamorous doctor who is about to speak at a charity fundraiser: “Why do we have to entertain them to get them to listen?” It’s a question that director Sean Penn may have petulantly wrestled with in making this mopey, overlong and vacuous disaster.
There is nothing remotely entertaining about this dreary romance and misguided drama, set against the backdrop of war in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Sudan. One would think Penn wants us to listen. And presumably watch. Then, how about not relegating human suffering and genocide into colorful wallpaper for a limpid love story? This is about as egregious as filmmaking gets.
That Penn chose to direct this film is especially disheartening given his directorial agility in the profoundly moving tale of personal exploration, 2007’s “Into The Wild.” One of many bad choices is having Theron (who fares better the much more energetic “Atomic Blonde”) provide leaden voiceover narration. Rarely does this device work. And here, the narrative platitudes are not only irritating, but often downright laughable, a poor man’s version of Terrence Malick’s repetitive, elliptical observations.
Worse, while the white doctors are there to help those less fortunate, the film smacks of colonialism. By rendering the Africans in the film into faceless props, Penn underscores a sense of white privilege, wrongheadedly making a volatile but tedious romance between two doctors — Miguel (Bardem) and Wren (Theron) — its centerpiece.
They meet in Liberia in 2003. He’s a relief-aid physician, and she’s the director of an international aid organization founded by her now-dead father. As war atrocities
“Before I met Miguel, I was an idea,” intones Wren in a baleful voice. “I didn’t really exist.” There’s a misogynistic thread running throughout. Wren has spent most of her life comparing her value to that of her late father, a womanizer who founded a volunteer medical organization, à la Doctors Without Borders. His ghost haunts her.
“I was invisible,” she whines. “Only the daughter of the inspiration. I was less than invisible — a tourist.” We get it, she’s in his shadow. She yearns to make her mark. She did become a doctor, after all. But her determination is not nearly as evident as her daddy issues.
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She turns to mush when she meets Miguel, who is committed to helping people. He’s also a cheater, plus handsomely disheveled and charismatic. “Sometimes a face is an illusion,” Wren says about Miguel. “His instantly struck me as the face of the male child I’d been hoped to be. ”
And speaking of faces, when their romance is on the ascendance they brush their teeth staring into each other’s eyes, gazing longingly. When they break up, she takes to her bed for days, not emerging until he comes to lure her out. They fight. She repeatedly insists he doesn’t know her.
“You think you know who I am?” she yells. “You don’t know who I am!” Nor do we. She seems so lacking in character as to be unknowable. When she isn’t bellowing, she delivers her lines in a breathy, whispery voice, with an on-again, off-again, South African accent. Bardem gives a more natural performance, and the dialogue he’s given to speak is not quite as stilted.
Why, oh why, would Penn have cast such a gifted actress and unparalleled action star in the role of such a weak and vapid woman? And why did Theron agree to make this film? While Bardem and Theron are indisputably talented and lively actors, their connection feels lifeless.
As their romance plays out dully, the larger story of war and suffering in Africa is given short shrift, coming across disturbingly superficial and inauthentic. The pretentious dialogue, written by Erin Dignam (“The Yellow Handkerchief”) is accompanied by languid sunlit visuals of insects, or graphic harrowing scenes of bloody limbs. From dreamy to nightmarish, the visuals are often accompanied by shallow philosophizing.
While there are some lilting African rhythms, Hans Zimmer’s score, sometimes oddly spooky, is light years from his potent sonic punch in “Dunkirk.” Barry Ackroyd’s handsome cinematography lacks the powerful, kinetic quality he achieved in “Detroit.”
And then there’s the matter of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their song, “Otherside,” is shoehorned in, in odd fragments, then later incorporated into a gentle instrumental version. Apparently, the lyrics set Wren off. Miguel plays the tune, and she grows explosive. She jumps out of a jeep they’re driving in with little African children in the back seat. She pokes her head through the window to express her anger, and he rolls the window up, effectively pinning her head. The children laugh. Ah, love.
The atrocities of war, however, keep interrupting their petty relationship issues. It takes a vicious gang who terrorizes a father and puts an assault rifle into the hands of his young son to stall their protracted break-up.
“The Last Face” tries to somehow connect massive human suffering in Liberia and South Sudan with “the brutality of an impossible love.” And in case you needed to know where such love falls on the gender spectrum, the introduction clarifies: “the brutality of a love shared by a man…and a woman.” The story somehow seeks to put the relationship of a pair of privileged white ciphers on a par with the African continent’s “shared brutality of corrupted innocence.”
Rarely has a movie felt so simultaneously inane, stultifying and offensive.