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Penn Sieve: Sean Penn leaks angst all over everything in 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon,' but what's the point?

Flick My Bickle

The inspiration for 'Taxi Driver' becomes a pale shadow of it in 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon'

By Richard von Busack

Baltimore's Samuel Byck would seem to be the model for would-be assassin Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver. Is it Byck's failure even to become an assassin that gives his story a wistfulness lacking in the similarly tragic life of Lee Harvey Oswald? The fictionalized version of Byck's life, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, stars Sean Penn as "Samuel Bicke," a Baltimore character who put together an elaborate plot to kill Richard Nixon.

Bicke is played by Penn in the actor's patented insignificant-shrimp mode, with a sad little mustache, moony eyes and a wardrobe containing few natural fibers. Bicke's 1974 is spent working for a physically massive businessman, a fleshy, greasily affable, manipulative office furniture store owner. The boss (Jack Thompson) is called Jack Jones, like the oleaginous sub-Bobby Darin singer who had a '60s hit called "Wives and Lovers"; the tune, as I recall it, advised housewives to fake orgasms. Bicke's tormented by this sleazy boss, who chortles over President Nixon's corruption. He admires Nixon as a great salesman who suckered the nation twice. To escape Jack Jones, Sam hopes to start an automobile tire delivery business with his mechanic chum Bonny (Don Cheadle). He's also trying, hopelessly, to win his ex-wife Maria back (she's played by Naomi Watts, dyed brunette).

The title is The Assassination of Richard Nixon, but the film is implicitly about the current dilemma, not 1974--this explains the amount of time spent castigating the lying Nixon as the source of Bicke's problems. The movie is suggesting "It's Bush's fault." The problem with bringing up Bush, even implicitly, is that he kills the conversation. The Assassination of Richard Nixon favors Penn's angry innocent who can't commit to the kind of compromises we all take for granted. The real-life Byck wasn't that misguided an assassin (if they'd arrested everyone who talked about shooting Nixon in 1974, they would have had to arrest millions). Still, the emphasis on Sean Penn stewing in his juices means that this movie misses the push and pull between body and soul. Thompson steals the picture because he at least seems to engage with the world; Bicke's monomania about integrity doesn't make him seem too beautiful to live. Only too boring.

Writer and first-time director Niels Mueller (who wrote the coke movie Sweet Nothings and Tadpole) shot in San Francisco, which lacks Baltimore's humid stink. Mueller tends to lie back while his star goes apeshit. If Penn were really the finest actor alive, wouldn't he be more diverting to watch? Bicke says, "All I wanted was just a piece of the American dream." Death row is full of people who say that. It's hardly a trenchant critique of the corrupt system. Feeling sorry for this rap is lying prone for a false naiveté that's hard to accept even in the realm of a semi-imaginary American movie.


The Assassination of Richard Nixon (R; 95 min.), written by Kevin Kennedy and Niels Mueller, directed by Mueller, and starring Sean Penn, Don Cheadle and Naomi Watts, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the January 5-12, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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