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‘Assassination’ shoots and misses

Sean Penn stars as a pathetic washout who longs to leave his mark. By John Hartl

“The Assassination of Richard Nixon” is likely to be remembered for its confrontational what-if title (the script is loosely based on a true story) and for Jack Thompson’s gleefully energetic performance as a pushy office-furniture salesman named Jack Jones.

In the movie’s savviest scene, Jones lectures an insecure new employee, Samuel Byck (Sean Penn), about his professional heroes. No. 1 on Jones’ list is Richard Nixon. After all, Nixon managed to persuade the public to vote for him in 1968 because he would end the war in Vietnam. Even though he failed to do so, he was re-elected in a 1972 landslide when he sold the public on the idea all over again. That, Jones points out, is true salesmanship.

The rest of the movie, alas, follows Byck the loser rather than Jones the pragmatic winner. And Byck is such a pathetic washout, on every personal and professional level, that he drags the entire movie down with him. Even as resourceful an actor as Penn can do nothing to halt the picture’s slide into irrelevance.

On the surface, Byck seems a close cousin to Travis Bickle, the alienated cab driver played so brilliantly by Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver.” But this time there’s no variety, little humor, no bizarre or endearing personality quirks — nothing that would create empathy for the character or make his behavior or relationships credible.

Even as Byck prepares for a plane hijacking, with the aim of hitting the White House, he comes off as Mr. Johnny One-Note. (The real Samuel Byck, who first threatened Nixon in 1972, did try to hijack a plane in 1974, killing one pilot and injuring another before he shot himself. Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” also tells his story.)

Naomi Watts, who co-starred with Penn in “21 Grams,” is equally limited by her role as Byck’s estranged wife, Marie. Now a single mom working as a waitress and clearly planning on divorce, Marie is a mystery. How did she last long enough with this man to produce a family? Why does she put up with his stalking?

Similar questions must be asked about Byck’s only friend, Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle), a bright mechanic who surely must have better things to do than to listen to Byck’s rants. At least there is some substance to their arguments, which usually revolve around racism, respect and the daily humiliations of working for a living.

The one character who sees through Byck is his brother, Julius (Michael Wincott), who justifiably feels betrayed by his sibling’s get-rich-quick schemes. Neils Mueller, the film’s co-writer and first-time director, does make the most of their final scene, as well as an outrageous episode in which Byck tries to buy his way into the Black Panthers.

Mueller wrote the clever 2002 romantic comedy, “Tadpole,” which took place in an idealized, fairy-tale Manhattan that seemed made to order for May-December romances. “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” achieves no such sense of time or place. Aside from Thompson’s vigorous, detailed performance, which is specifically tied to the early 1970s, the movie doesn’t feel grounded in anything but monotony.