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Review: Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem can’t resuscitate director Sean Penn’s grim romantic drama ‘The Last Face’

There’s a big, fat romantic wartime drama desperate to bust through the bloodshed, anguish and proselytizing that overwhelm director Sean Penn’s grimly earnest, wannabe epic “The Last Face.” But its capable, charismatic stars, Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem, can do only so much to keep us invested.

In 2003, physician and activist Wren (Theron) meets and falls for sexy relief-aid doctor Miguel (Bardem) amid the triage tents of war-torn Liberia. (The film was shot in South Africa.)

But love, as people are bleeding or dying all around you, is no cakewalk. Wren’s daddy (and maybe mommy) issues, Miguel’s player past, and Wren and Miguel’s conflicting impulses about humanitarianism add to the couple’s undoing.

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The sometimes dreamy action shuttles between 2003 and a present in which Wren devotes herself to running her late father’s international aid organization while Miguel tends to victims of the crisis in South Sudan.

Penn takes an unflinching approach to the horrors of war (and, you should be warned, emergency surgery). More problematic are the hollow, fill-in-the-emotions voice-overs and the blunt messaging in Erin Dignam’s script, which Penn reportedly rewrote. Shedding light on world atrocities is vital, but spelling them out in neon is deadly.

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‘The Last Face’

Rating: R, for strong bloody violence including disturbing images of war atrocities, language, and brief sexuality.

Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles; also on VOD

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