This Must Be The Place

This Must Be The Place
This Must Be The Place will receive a lim­ited the­at­rical release in the US through The Weinstein Company. Distribution and the­at­rical plans in Canada are unknown at the moment. Canadians may have to wait to see this one on DVD in a few months.

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.

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One Response to This Must Be The Place

  1. Alan Parker says:

    I saw This Must Be The Place in Europe about six weeks ago. Your descrip­tion — “a fas­cin­at­ing mess, but one worth your time” — is spot on. Penn is abso­lutely mes­mer­iz­ing. The plot­ting is wonky, the pacing is that of a drunken camel, some ele­ments are philo­soph­ic­ally offens­ive — but it cre­ates a uni­verse of its own that drags you along. And you can’t take your eyes — and ears — off of Penn. So it’s good that he’s on the screen 95% of the time. It’s one of those films that keeps play­ing back in my head weeks after see­ing it. I can’t wait to see it again.

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