Sean Penn has never been as well-liked for his activism as he is for his art, but the two collide with unflattering results in “The Last Face.” The movie, which the actor directs from Erin Dignam’s script, finds the somber head of an international aid organization (Charlize Theron) falling in love with the surly relief doctor (Javier Bardem) as they drift through war-torn African refugee camps trying to save countless anonymous souls. Even without its mopey, painfully on-the-nose dialogue and ponderous story, “The Last Face” sets itself up for failure with its premise, and Penn’s apparent inability to recognize it as such. It’s his worst movie.
An opening title card goes so far as to analogize the civil war in South Sudan to “the brutality of impossible love shared by a man…and a woman,” an assertion met with justifiable rounds of laughter at the Cannes Film Festival’s first screening. The narrative panders on every level: It’s a supercilious attempt to bemoan the hardships of neglected people under the guise of whiny romantic fluff.
The striking mediocrities of “The Last Face” ring especially hollow given that Penn tends to be a fine director of intimate drama, as he proved a decade ago with his last behind-the-camera credit, “Into the Wild.” While that movie focused on a primal relationship between man and nature, “The Last Face” stumbles through more pedestrian concerns of romantic woes. The initial setup holds some intrigue thanks to Theron’s guilt-ridden character, Wren, the daughter of a celebrated activist who now spends her time arguing for greater relief efforts from the UN. As she addresses a roomful of wealthy supporters while an orchestra swells behind her, she flashes back to her experiences with Miguel (Bardem), the handsome surgeon who won her over years ago before his nomadic lifestyle drew them apart.
Most of the movie revolves around their on-again, off-again courtship. These scenes range from shrill to grotesque — from a grisly collaboration on a last-minute caesarean operation for an injured woman in the dead of night, to a cutesy scene in which the couple brush their teeth together that drags on and on. There’s no single consistent variable in the story aside from their own imperiled relationship, which relegates the other characters — most problematically, countless anonymous Africans — to side show status. A subpar retread of “The Constant Gardener” territory, “The Last Face” is the cinematic equivalent of a Nicolas Kristof op-ed stuffed into the atmosphere of a Gabriel García Márquez novel, doing a disservice to both traditions.
At times, “The Last Face” manages to hold interest with impressive camerawork that sweeps through refugee camps, capturing grimly evocative images that border on documentary. But it’s hard to reconcile such feats with regrettable dialogue designed to pull on every heart string imaginable. At a camp one night after the work is done for the day, a refugee worker sighs, “they stripped her from her vagina to her anus, but she’s here, with me, dancing.”
So it goes in “The Last Face,” which favors the impact of relief work on the workers rather than the targets of their efforts.
The self-aggrandizing script is epitomized by a character with the cringe-worthy name Dr. Love, played by the usually reliable Jean Reno, who winds up saddled with the worst lines. Scowling at Miguel and Wren when they push past questions about their longtime commitment, he growls, “It is not grabbing. It is loving.”
“The Last Face” takes such blunt assertions at face value. Without an ounce of irony, the movie tumbles in every direction, not only struggling to make its central romance hold water but to find a spark of intrigue in anything surrounding it. It’s unfortunate that Penn seems to think this half-baked approach does any service to its subject matter. As an activist, Penn has occasionally put himself in the line of fire for virtuous reasons, but this time it’s an accident of the highest order.
“The Last Face” premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.