This Must Be The Place (Director: Paolo Sorrentino): Before I even knew a thing about this film, I knew I wanted to see it, based purely on the movie’s enticing poster. Sean Penn playing a character obviously inspired by The Cure’s Robert Smith? I’m so there. The film’s Italian director and co-writer, Paolo Sorrentino, came up with Penn’s “Cheyenne” character after meeting Smith and being struck by the fact that the musician, then in the 50ish age range, maintained his onstage visual persona (featuring the big hair, heavy makeup, and black clothing) offstage as well.
Penn, Sorrentino, and co-writer Umberto Contarello add further quirks to Cheyenne by making him occasionally wear granny-style glasses, walk with a stooped shuffle, and speak in a pinched, timid tone, while setting him up as a wealthy, faded American 80’s rock star retired in Ireland who is seemingly in a constant state of depression. Notified that his father is dying back in the US, Cheyenne returns home, but arrives too late. While filling in some of the gaps from the thirty year estrangement in their relationship, he discovers that his dad, a Holocaust survivor, maintained an interest in the SS officer who tortured him. This spurs Cheyenne to undertake a road trip in search of his dad’s tormentor, last thought to be living somewhere in the US. Yes, this would correctly be categorized as a “high concept” movie.
Penn taking on risky roles isn’t anything new — he did it most recently in Milk and, of course, I Am Sam. I had mixed reactions to those performances, but he’s fantastic here in a demanding role that, as per my initial reaction, threatens to be consumed by the novelty of his character’s eccentricities. That, no disrespect, Penn’s face looks every one of its 50 years only adds to the fascinating and sad sight of his aging goth character caked in makeup, which Sorrentino takes advantage of by giving us multiple shots of Penn’s mug in unflinching, extreme close-up. Cheyenne is a study in contradiction: his behaviour mostly suggests a subdued and withdrawn damage case, yet he doesn’t shy away from meeting new people and engaging them in conversations that predictably take a turn for the weird. Call him a highly functioning recluse. The supporting cast includes excellent performances from Frances McDormand as Cheyenne’s longtime wife, Kerry Condon as widowed waitress, Judd Hirsch as a Nazi hunter, Harry Dean Stanton as a character met during Cheyenne’s road trip (Stanton seems right at home in this strangle little film world), and relative newcomer Eve Hewson as Cheyenne’s Dublin friend (Hewson also happens to be Bono’s daughter).
Penn, who appears in almost every scene, may bring his acting A-game to This Must Be The Place, but that’s not enough to overcome the film’s often glaring deficiencies. Quirkiness abounds in this movie; frequently, its peculiarities feel forced and serve little purpose, other than to seemingly up the weirdness quotient. Example: one scene shows an elderly Native American man mysteriously showing up as a passenger in Cheyenne’s vehicle and then soon exiting in a similarly head-scratching manner, with no explanation given. Any intended symbolism went over my head. Other scenes, such as the one where Cheyenne takes on some town locals in a game of ping pong, don’t add much to the story other than being “slice of life” vignettes, but they come at the expense of the movie’s pacing, which can be quite slow. Additionally, the ambiguous ending may disappoint, plus the role of one of the film’s characters (Olwen Fouere’s “Mary”) doesn’t quite feel fully developed.
Sorrentino, making his English-language debut after garnering wide acclaim for 2008’s Il Divo, impresses with a visually compelling film. There’s some beautiful sweeping shots, as well as many that employ an odd, but interesting framing structure. He also mines more unexpected comedic moments than you would expect from the weighty topics the film tackles. Music, not surprisingly, also plays a big factor in the film, which takes its title from the Talking Heads song. The track shows up in numerous incarnations throughout, including one great art-rock set piece that features Talking Heads singer David Byrne performing it with his solo group, set to a visual art accompaniment. Byrne also has a few lines of dialogue and contributed original music to the film’s soundtrack, which proves to be a fairly mixed bag of material.
Between Penn’s captivating portrayal and the film’s shortcomings, I’d characterize the ambitious This Must Be The Place as a fascinating mess, but one worth your time.