A star-studded cast comes together with relative unknowns to chat about their buddy Sean.
Shying away from the standard hagiographic strategy—dark, troubled thespian is constantly misunderstood by the dull masses and those Hollywood suits—British journalist/documentary filmmaker Kelly relies instead on a galaxy of interviewees ranging from actors Christopher Walken, Angelica Huston, and Jack Nicholson to Penn’s mother and a gaggle of his less famous friends. Son of a devoutly Catholic Irish-Italian actress and a Russian-Jewish journeyman director, Penn grew up pretty wild in Malibu, surfing, drinking, getting into trouble, and screwing around making short movies with friends like Emilio Estevez. After some hardscrabble theater work in Los Angeles and later New York, he got a major role in the 1981 film Taps. Fast Times at Ridgemont High followed soon after. His career since has hardly been a smooth upward climb: downs include the sad, crass failure of Shanghai Surprise, and his increasingly impressive work as a writer/director (The Pledge, The Crossing Guard) has not yet achieved much commercial success. Given the wealth of voices here, it’s easy for Kelly to resist the authorial urge to pontificate about the meaning to Penn’s life; instead, he lets its enjoyably random chaos wash across the page. One person after another attests to Penn’s mule-headed nature and his monkish devotion to the craft of acting, which includes such irritating-to-coworkers quirks as insisting on being referred to by his character’s name and acting rude off-camera to people he was supposed to hate on-camera. Great stories include the anecdote about Penn and some friends getting a private serenade from Jewel—until she was interrupted by a bang: the actor had just shot a rat with a laser-sighted Glock.
One of those rare oral biographies that’s admiring yet still honest.