Two of Hol­ly­wood’s hottest tal­ents share top billing in an am­bi­tious epic that has al­ready wowed crit­ics at Cannes, writes Paul Har­ris

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - Front Page - THE TREE OF LIFE Opens State Cin­ema on June 30

Brad Pitt and Sean Penn com­bine their star power.

AS FILMS go, the am­bi­tion of The Tree of Life is hardly small. This epic from enig­matic au­teur di­rec­tor Ter­rence Mal­ick ( The Thin Red Line ) aims to ex­plore the very mean­ing of ex­is­tence in two hours and 18 min­utes.

But it’s not just Mal­ick’s artis­tic di­rec­to­rial style and the fact The Tree of Life won top hon­ours ( Palme d’Or) at this year’s Cannes Film Fes­ti­val that have peo­ple ex­cited. It is the iden­tity of the male leads: Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.

The Tree of Life show­cases the acting skills of two of mod­ern Hol­ly­wood’s big­gest stars, ap­pear­ing in a movie to­gether for the first time.

On the face of it, the film’s lead­ing men ap­pear dis­sim­i­lar. Pitt, 48, ( top) re­tains much of the boy­ish good looks that made him a clas­sic mati­nee idol.

The 51-year-old Penn ( left), mean­while, with his crag­gier looks and out­spo­ken opin­ions, ap­pears more to epit­o­mise the tor­tured artist. Yet both are mas­ters of their game.

Here Pitt and Penn play men of dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions and tem­per­a­ments. Pitt plays Penn’s fa­ther as a clas­sic male of the 1950s: stern and mas­cu­line. Penn’s char­ac­ter, mean­while, strug­gles with that pa­ter­nal legacy decades later, seek­ing to re­solve his adult angst by search­ing for mean­ing in their trou­bled re­la­tion­ship.

In re­al­ity, their jour­neys to­wards Hol­ly­wood celebrity have largely par­al­leled each other. Both ac­tors be­gan with bit parts on tele­vi­sion.

Pitt started in 1987 with an ap­pear­ance on the sit­com Grow­ing Pains and a short role in Dal­las, be­fore the sight of his sen­sa­tional six-pack in Thelma and Louise sparked global Pitt-ma­nia.

Penn’s first role was as an ex­tra in The Lit­tle House on the Prairie. He then played a young re­cruit at a mil­i­tary school in Taps in 1981 be­fore hit­ting it big in the 1982 teen com­edy Fast Times at Ridge­mont High.

The­o­ret­i­cally, such a role should not have paved the way to a se­ri­ous ca­reer. But Penn, like Pitt, just needed an au­di­ence and rapidly pro­gressed to crit­i­cally ac­claimed work in projects such as Bad Boys and The Fal­con and the Snow­man.

Both men have been care­ful to cul­ti­vate as wide a fan base as pos­si­ble.

Penn, de­spite a rep­u­ta­tion for his se­ri­ous thes­pian roles, has not been shy about do­ing main­stream thrillers and ac­tion movies.

Pitt be­came a movie star on the back of manly roles in big-bud­get films such as A River Runs Through It, In­ter­view with a Vam­pire, Troy and Mr & Mrs Smith.

Yet both avoided the clas­sic pit­fall: type­cast­ing.

Pitt and Penn have been care­ful from the start to stretch their skills in smaller, more dif­fi­cult roles.

Pitt, es­pe­cially, could have just re­laxed into be­ing a sex sym­bol. But he agreed to play Death in Meet Joe Black, the Ir­ish boxer Mickey in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, a fa­mous out­law in art-house west­ern The As­sas­si­na­tion of Jesse James and the ti­tle role in The Cu­ri­ous Case of Ben­jamin But­ton.

Penn, mean­while, won nu­mer­ous awards and ac­claim for tough roles as a mur­derer in Dead Man Walk­ing, a men­tally dis­abled man in I AmSam, and a gay rights ac­tivist in Milk.

Both per­fected the art of keep­ing main­stream crowds stream­ing into the mul­ti­plexes while also in­dulging their artis­tic pas­sions. There are par­al­lels in their per­sonal lives, too.

Both found them­selves in celebrity re­la­tion­ships: Penn mar­ried Madonna, while Pitt wed Jen­nifer Anis­ton. Pitt is now part­ner to An­gelina Jolie, while Penn was re­cently re­ported to have started liv­ing with Scar­lett Jo­hans­son.

The fi­nal box to tick in the magic ‘‘ Penn-Pitt’’ for­mula for con­quer­ing Tin­sel­town is to get be­hind the cam­era as well as in front of it. Pitt has been ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer on some great films, in­clud­ing the mas­ter­ful The As­sas­si­na­tion of Jesse James.

Penn, mean­while, has long honed his di­rect­ing skills, par­tic­u­larly on 2007’ s Into the Wild.

Sim­i­lar­i­ties aside, Penn and Pitt have quite dif­fer­ent acting styles. Some crit­ics see Pitt as more of a ‘‘ per­son­al­ity’’ ac­tor in the style of Cary Grant, while Penn is more of a char­ac­ter ac­tor who in­hab­its the roles he plays.

An­other large dif­fer­ence be­tween the two is their attitude to pol­i­tics.

Pitt has spo­ken out in favour of gay mar­riage and taken an ac­tive in­ter­est in help­ing to re­build New Or­leans af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina. But much of his work is un­der the radar.

The fa­mously fiery Penn is renowned as an out­spo­ken Hol­ly­wood lib­eral who is un­afraid to make po­lit­i­cal points.

It is hard to imag­ine Pitt aban­don­ing Jolie to spend a year run­ning a Haitian refugee camp, as Penn has done.

There is one more thing that both have in spades: am­bi­tion and drive. As Pitt’s char­ac­ter says in The Tree of Life : ‘‘ It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.’’

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