Penn acts up a storm, but can’t justify movie

It is a matter of public record, though not very highly public, that a man tried to hijack a plane in 1974 in order to fly it into the White House and kill President Richard Nixon. His rather pathetic case history forms the jumping-off point for a fictionalized story called “The Assassination of Richard Nixon.”

The main draw here is that the man, Sam Bicke, is played by Sean Penn, who invests all his actorly skills in creating a frustrated, obsessive loser. He’s one of those hapless souls perpetually one beat behind everybody else – his name reminds us of Travis Bickle, the “Taxi Driver” guy (and he is a cousin to one of Penn’s past performances, as the whiny spy in “The Falcon and the Snowman”).

Bicke is separated from his wife (Naomi Watts) and children, and trying to ground himself by taking on a new job as an office furniture salesman. His inability to schmooze makes him especially ill-suited for the job.

His only friend is a mechanic, played by Don Cheadle. Bicke includes him in a business plan to sell tires from a school bus, which leads to humiliating experiences trying to get a loan from a bank.

Through all this, Bicke comes across as a paranoid who funnels his personal disappointments into a fury about the world – the kind of guy who shouts on street corners. He donates part of his small income to the Black Panthers, and becomes convinced that Richard Nixon is the ultimate evil salesman.

Loser’s story: Sean Penn gives an exacting portrait of a hapless loser whose failures in life lead him to plot the demise of the president. Good acting, but hard to know why this fellow is at the center of a film.

Rated: R rating is for language, subject matter.

Now showing:

The real-life would-be assassin sent tape recordings of his ramblings to, among other people, New York Philharmonic conductor Leonard Bernstein. These give the movie a narrative backbone, a way into Bicke’s mind.

The question is, who wants to get into Bicke’s mind? Director and co-writer Niels Mueller clearly sees this case history as a way of examining the frustrations of the disenfranchised American.

On the one hand, Bicke has a conscience, which is what makes him a bad salesman. He doesn’t want to lie to people, unlike his crass boss at the furniture store (marvelously incarnated by Jack Thompson).

But Penn’s performance is all too exacting. Bicke doesn’t seem like a victim of circumstances or society, he seems like a jerk who mostly causes his own problems. Sean Penn shows great skill in bringing this fellow to life, but even he can’t create a reason Sam Bicke should be at the center of a movie.

Sean Penn stars in “The Assassination of Richard Nixon.”

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