This Must Be The Place

by Drew Kerr on March 2, 2012 · 1 comment

in Theatrical Release

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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