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August 22, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

If you were left mystified and exasperated by Terrence Malick’s critically praised The Tree of Life, shake hands with Sean Penn, who ostensibly co-starred in the movie, but whose role amounted to little more than a cameo. “I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read,” he told the French newspaper Le Figaro. “A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.” But New Yorker critic Richard Brody, who extolled the film as “a meditation on the distinctive ideals of American society,” underscores his praise in a commentary on the magazine’s website. “The Tree of Life is a marvel,” he writes. “Penn is very good in it — but Malick wasn’t shooting it for the pleasure or the benefit of the actors. What Penn conveys in his performance … is his very stardom, his charisma, his emotional intensity.” And yet, seeming to contradict those very words, Brody concludes, “The star system, the flatteries of celebrity — and, for that matter, the temperament that makes a person become an actor in the first place — contribute much to an actor’s sense that a movie is, or should be, all about him. There are some movies — and some great ones — in which this is so. But in The Tree of Life, Penn’s unhappy and unexpected less really is more.”