I am not Sam: Sean Penn shines as a desperate everyman in ‘The Assassination of Richard Nixon’

“The Assassination of Richard Nixon”ThinkFilm Inc.Directed by Niels MuellerWritten by Mueller and Kevin KennedyStarring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Don CheadleRated R/95 minOpened Feb. 11

Four out of five stars

Samuel Bicke is a lousy salesman. He stutters, he sweats, he can’t spin that web of B.S. that every good salesman must in order to trap his prey. It’s 1974 and night after night, in the same smoky bar, Samuel endures the same patronizing tutelage from his fat-fingered boss.

“You wanna know who’s the greatest salesman in the world?” He points at Richard Nixon on the TV. “Twice we’ve bought into that guy, both times he sold us on the same thing: That he’d end the war in Vietnam.”

“The Assassination of Richard Nixon” is a painfully tragic look at a man who bought into the American Dream and came up broke-literally and figuratively.

The film rests on a stellar performance from Sean Penn that’s right up there with his Oscar-winning role in “Mystic River”-Penn’s Samuel is as weak as his Jimmy Marcus was tough. Certainly, if the two characters ever met, Jimmy would knock some sense into the blame-shifting Samuel.

Samuel goes through jobs like some people go through cigarettes-he simply won’t put up with a boss who imposes any sort of dominance over him. As Samuel’s friend Bonny (Don Cheadle) advises, “Just don’t let it get to you,” but of course, Samuel does.

Samuel has “rights,” or so he says. He shouldn’t have to put up with that kind of treatment. The American Dream taught him that everyone deserves a white-picket fence, a loving family and a shiny, new Cadillac-the kind of life Richard Nixon talks about on TV.

What Samuel doesn’t grasp are the rules of the game. If he wants that dream, there are certain social norms and acceptable levels of servitude he must endure. Dilbert could teach this guy a thing or two.

Things turn desperate for Samuel when he hits the skids with his wife (Naomi Watts), an important loan falls through and, oh yeah, he is a monumentally lousy salesman.

Despair leads to insanity, which leads to a deadly plot in which…well, you know the name of the movie: One way or another, Samuel blames Nixon for his failings and a diabolical plot is hatched.

It’s a small miracle that Penn and writer/director Niels Mueller manage to create sympathy for such a deranged character as Samuel. Samuel wants what we all want-love, acceptance and a stamp on the world that says, “I was here, and I did something that people will remember.”

However, to leave such a mark requires hard work and patience, something the gun-toting Samuel fails to understand.

It’s an interesting narrative, but the real reason “Nixon” succeeds at engrossing viewers is largely because Penn is so marvelous as Samuel.

In her supporting role, Watts plays a woman who knows a lame duck when she sees one and wisely stays away. Watts has made a very good career out of playing hard-bitten women-it’s hard to imagine she once smiled in “Mulholland Drive” (before transforming into a hard-bitten woman in the second half-don’t ask). Sadly, “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” runs afoul due to a few narrative redundancies. Life is very, very bad for Samuel-one humiliating situation after another, like a pianist playing the same low note over and over again. The mood gets a bit grating at times.

Still, the repetition of the story is a minor complaint in the face of another inimitable Sean Penn performance. “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” is utterly compelling in its exploration of the darkest realms of the human psyche.

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