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‘The Last Face’: Sean Penn’s tone-deaf tale of love in the battlefield

Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem play doctors saving the lives of innocent war victims in "The Last Face." | SABAN FILMS/AMAZON

The Academy Award-winning actor Sean Penn directs Academy Award-winning actors Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem in “The Last Face,” an ambitious tale of star-crossed love set against the tragic backdrop of war-torn Liberia.

They will not have to make room on their respective mantles for more trophies.

Given the pedigrees of the principals involved (Penn has helmed solid films such as “The Crossing Guard” and “Into the Wild”) and the serious nature of the subject matter, this is an astonishingly uninvolving and at times almost laughably melodramatic effort, marred by overwrought voice-over narration from Theron, a relentless barrage of scenes depicting horrific human suffering and a love story featuring one-dimensional characters we don’t particularly care about.

And they’re playing relief doctors risking their lives on a daily basis to save innocent victims. If you don’t find yourself rooting extra hard for relief doctors risking their lives on a daily basis to save innocent victims, there’s something very, very tone-deaf about the material.

Over the last many years, director Sean Penn has devoted much of his time and effort to humanitarian causes (and sometimes dubious “journalistic” efforts) and there’s little doubt his heart is in the right place, but “The Last Face” comes across more as brutal two-hour lecture than effective drama.

Again and again, Penn’s camera focuses on the suffering of civilians — mostly women and children — who have been riddled with bullets, tortured by terrorists, maimed by bombs. Of course we know these things really happened and of course we are horrified by such acts of unspeakable, mindless cruelty, but “The Last Face” spends so much time on the on-again, off-again romance between Bardem’s Miguel and Theron’s Wren, the African victims are all but nameless and faceless backdrops.

When Miguel walks among the children of the villages and they swarm him, touching him and hopping about as if he is the Messiah, when Wren strides in slow motion and looks like a goddess from above, “The Last Face” turns their characters into mythic heroes, not authentic human beings.

The romantic scenes are awful. At one point Miguel pleads with Wren to let him back into her life, but Wren tells him to stay away — until she finally gives in, tells him to come closer, and for some reason lifts up his T-shirt and puts her head inside so it looks like he’s pregnant.

Director Penn also seems to think Theron’s feet are worthy of their own scenes, e.g., an excruciatingly goofy interlude in which she picks up a pencil with her toes. Ta-da!

“The Last Face” saves the worst for last. Looking every inch the glamorous movie star she is, Theron stands before an audience at an elegant charity event and gives an endless speech about how love is more important than air, and refugees are people just like us, and the victims are not nameless nor are they faceless.

Except we’ve just watched a two hour-plus movie where the vast majority of victims WERE essentially nameless and faceless.

1⁄2

Saban Films and Lionsgate present a film directed by Sean Penn and written by Erin Dignam. Rated R (for strong bloody violence including disturbing images of war atrocities, language, and brief sexuality). Running time: 130 minutes. Opens Friday at AMC South Barrington and on demand.