Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont Hight" (1982), this week's entry in the Charles' revival series, is the doggerel poet laureate of stoned surfers. He's the high point of a movie that I think plays better now as a period piece than it did as a freshly minted comedy. (It screens Saturday at noon, Monday at 7 p.m. and Thursday at 9 p.m.) Spicoli's dumb genius should be credited partly to screenwriter Cameron Crowe and partly to Sean Penn, who displays an uproarious orginality and confidence in just his second big-screen role. Crowe provided the odd rhythms to the dialogue, but it took Penn's out-of-this-world (or in-his-own-world) delivery to put it over. Spicoli orders a pizza that's delivered to him during history class. The teacher asks "Just what the hell do you think you're doing?" It's Penn's on-target delivery that detonates the line, "Learning about Cuba, and having some food."
Penn long ago turned into a powerhouse performer, and he earned his Oscar for "Milk." But I thought he was an egregious over-actor in his other Oscar role, in "Mystic River. " I wish he took on more characters like the slippery lawyer in "Carlito's Way," a part that, once again, enabled the comic side of his temperament to burst through. He's engaging when he doesn't take himself ultra-seriously. He shouldn't undervalue any of his talents, including his star presence. Under that great director of stars, Sydney Pollack, Penn made you think he could have been another Bogart when he played a worn-out Secret Service agent in "The Interpreter."
Penn will soon be seen as Joseph Wilson in "Fair Game" and as a tortured soul in "The Tree of Life"; he's still listed as part of the cast for the Farrelly Brothers' forthcoming "Three Stooges" movie. Which of these are you most looking forward to? And what are your favorite Sean Penn characters?