Critics Won't Get It, But Sean Penn's Perfmance in I Am Sam Is a Transformation; Altman Gets It All Right in Gosford Park

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Forget the hype for Ali, Black Hawk Down, Lord of the Rings, even Kandahar, because the news?the miracle?this movie season is Sean Penn's performance in I Am Sam. It's a transformation. Playing a mentally retarded man who goes to court to win custody of his seven-year-old daughter, Penn escapes the mawkishness of Jessie Nelson's script (co-authored with Kristine Johnson) and her frenetic, tv-style direction because his acting is pure. In several scenes featuring actual mentally handicapped people as Sam's friends, Penn gets to their level of speech, their preoccupied looking-about, their momentary cessations. There's no condescension, pathos or cuteness in what Penn does. The role might be a complete improvisation for the air of spontaneity?and suspense?his behavior maintains. Like Sam himself, Penn doesn't ask for pity?or for acclaim.

Penn has received none of the year-end trinkets. The greatest honor attached to this performance is Penn's apparent commitment to individual human wonder. Sam Dawson is a modest monument to the peccadilloes of realistic behavior?like Brando in On the Waterfront, Anna Magnani in The Miracle. Penn plays someone with diminished expressive capacities but he keeps the lights on. At times his eyes are scarily bright, as if beyond normal sight?not literally, but uncannily blind, alert yet stunted. (I don't recall any other actor ever achieving this subtle displacement.) Penn makes the ultimate show of respect when forcing one's direct response to Sam. He seems to be in the room with you, and this immediacy no doubt scared off the pundits who prefer to reward the noncredible showboating of Denzel Washington in Training Day and every In the Bedroom actor.

Critics probably can't see Penn's achievement because they're embarrassed by the context. Nelson doesn't make it easy to distinguish maudlin guilt from honest perception (or an artist's selflessness from egomaniacal cartwheels), especially when she gooses the soundtrack with treacly Beatles covers and overemphatic editing. She even pretends to shoot some scenes as documentary?an insult to Penn's creativity and our own perception. Sam's circumstance is unsettling enough without comparison to anything else (although in scenes with Michelle Pfeiffer as Sam's lawyer, both actors dig beneath beauty/beast contrasts for a nearly devastating fortune/misfortune empathy). Penn's credibility is astonishing enough?as with De Niro's Max Cady in Cape Fear, there's no self-congratulation in recognizing it, just awe. (That's what you see in Laura Dern's face as a would-be foster parent.) Clearly, Penn's personal challenge has far more integrity than that of actors who take on roles for popularity contests. These sappy filmmakers' desire to be heartwarming lacks Penn's absolute compassion. As a director (The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard and The Pledge) Penn's ultra-humane efforts always end up sentimental, but as an actor he maintains extraordinary rigor. If there's any hope for the profession, actors will be studying Sam Dawson for years?and remain mystified. Penn makes you see a familiar human tragedy as something new. That's what it's all about.

Gosford Park
Directed by Robert Altman

Class is an unconscious concept in American culture, but Robert Altman has always observed it. That's why Dr. T and the Women and Kansas City troubled naive viewers. Altman's Gosford Park should pose no problem, since it charts the workings of society through a familiar?distanced?comic-dramatic microcosm, the British class system. Following his great contemporary, All-American panoplies Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts (1993), Altman sets his tale of British social habit in the past?during a hunting party at an English manor house in 1932. The film is so atmospheric and Altman's perception so acute (it opens with exploited servants drenched in the rain), one responds to his personal conviction to make this British costume spectacle a self-scrutinizing pleasure. It's more morally and politically honest than the others.

Gosford Park combines various genres as a show of narrative bravura. It parodies storytelling conventions?in this case the Upstairs/Downstairs tradition of British class drama, the Agatha Christie murder-mystery tradition, plus the social-realist drama?urging viewers toward multileveled derision and richer emotion. For those who misunderstood the blistering Topsy-Turvy as a celebration of British tradition, Altman makes such Anglophilia impossible. Appropriating Mike Leigh territory, Altman proves a far more slippery, complex and elegant artist. This tribute to Leigh (an admitted Altman devotee) uses a lighter touch and a more bemused tone. Mischievous Altman builds a better Mousetrap (that was the Christie play that ran on the London stage for five decades), surveying England's beastly aristocracy as the vermin carrying Western hegemony.

Convening two teams of good actors?from established Anglo film stars Maggie Smith and Alan Bates to recent upcoming ones Kelly Macdonald and Clive Owen?Altman encourages a multiplicity of types, behaviors, voices, evoking a particular region of the world at a certain time in history. Manipulating the British theatrical tradition is part of the subversion. The hallowed intonations are deeper (Smith as Aunt Constance, the Countess of Trentham, softly bellows her endless put-downs) and the diction sharper (whether Kristin Scott-Thomas as the haughty, mercenary Lady Sylvia McCordle or Richard E. Grant as the first footman sneering at his coworkers with a more acid Gielgud pith). The accelerating tenor of titled guests' or lowly workers' relationships gives the movie an ongoing rhythm and fascination. Facades break down at the cocktail party and the hunt, and Altman steadily reveals the servants' behind-the-tapestry commotion. Here the accents vary (from Scots to cockney) and the personal histories are the antithesis?the bloody truth?of the upper class' bogus refinement. Macdonald plays Mary, a visiting maid befriended by head housemaid Elsie (Emily Watson). The head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) keeps up an ages-old clash with the head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins), while the menservants and valets (including Grant, Owens, Ryan Phillippe and Derek Jacobi) switch jobs under head butler Bates. The cavalcade of old aristos, young aristos, supervisors, servants and Hollywood-American guests (Jeremy Northam as Ivor Novello, Bob Balaban as a producer of Charlie Chan movies) populate a humming chaos.

Altman's intercutting style compares social and working worlds' inequities. Ancient, wrinkled Aunt Constance is a comic mummy preserving old hatreds under the guise of civility. Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) doesn't hide his disgust; as Lord of the Manor he perpetuates a tainted system. Mistresses share confidences with maids, employees even bicker over position. Rich and poor families keep devastating secrets. Some servants actually defend the class system and its snobbery?an authentically incongruous attitude that Altman (and screenwriter Julian Fellowes) boldly gets right.

Unlike the groveling Merchant-Ivory, Altman refuses to let viewers relax into this affluent world or ruefully pine for it. By emphasizing the vitality of each high- or low-born personality, Gosford Park implies something more important?genuine social tension, the continuing class struggle as an aspect of human nature. Not even a Marxist esthete like Visconti made a more incisive cultural critique, and Altman works his own variation on that tradition, too. Gosford Park is meaningfully gorgeous. The Stephen Altman-designed interiors are as wide and richly appointed as late Visconti: the red damask bedroom walls or pheasant-and-flower murals in the women's wait room contrast with the polished mahogany and dark tiles on the service floor. The sheen and shadows of the downstairs glass-paneled servants' quarters are lit for intrigue by cinematographer Andrew Dunn. Scene by scene creates a tantalizing visual study of overburnished, underexamined traditions. (In a typical Altman pun, chemicals for guns, watches, shoes lie everywhere?as polish or poison. The system's own accouterments make its demise inevitable.)


Altman says Gosford Park is his tribute to Jean Renoir's 1939 La Regle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game), but his 1978 film A Wedding was already?instinctively?full of Renoir-like resonances and influence. Through a common patience for human foible and a clear-eyed view of social structure, Altman and Renoir are soulmates. (It's based in the universal soulfulness of Truth?which is also what makes Altman's The Player resonate within David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.) Much of Gosford Park's brilliance is in how Altman traces the roots of class antagonism in the taken-for-granted past. Refusing the Hitler-junkie condescension of the daft Charlotte Gray, Altman takes a bracing, original look at history similar to the fascination he brought to the 1930s jazz milieu of Kansas City, where a working-class character like Jennifer Jason Leigh's Blondie is kissing cousin to Emily Watson's Marcelle-waved housemaid Elsie.

As Gosford Park shifts from drama to comedy to mystery and back, it's not just monarchy-bashing like the juvenile From Hell, but a rare movie detailing working life. It contrasts lower-class toil with upper-class alienated amusement (dismal, psychic labor). The wonder of Altman's films has always been in seeing how people behave, and Gosford Park is no less entranced with living. During moments out of time, Mirren and Owen stare across a bed-sit, puzzling at each other's fate. Watson sits in a tub, glowing with curiosity. McCordle's daughter Isobel (Camilla Rutherford) lounges amid dolls reflecting her decorative status. Phillippe enters breakfast foolishly proud?one among a procession of insights. Best of all is a signature Altman musical interlude: Jeremy Northam's Novello bears most of Constance's scorn, he performs a musical set ("What a Duke Should Be," "The Land of Might Have Been") that condenses all the longings and contradictions within the manor house. (Told, "You're providing a lot of entertainment for nothing," Novello responds, "I'm used to it.") Most aristos get bored, but the servants cling to Novello's echoing tunes in the mansion's dark spaces. Respite. Dream. For the stretch of this entire sequence, Gosford Park becomes simultaneously scathing and poignant. That's miraculous, too.


In a terrific movie year, a year of Mosts:

Most Misunderstood (sublime): A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg)

Most Empathetic: Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)

Most Insight: Gosford Park (Robert Altman)

Most Audacious: The Day I Became a Woman (Marzieh Meshkini)

Most Patriotic: The Man Who Wasn't There (Joel Coen)

Most Ecstatic: Adventures of Felix (Ducastel-Martineau)

Most Universal: Faat-Kine (Ousmane Sembene)

Most Bling-Bling: In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai)

Most Resounding: Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr)

Most Motley: The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson)

Most Awful: Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann)

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