Review: This Must Be The Place (2011)

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

***

This Must Be The Place is blessed and cursed by a dichotomy; it features sights and sounds that must be seen and heard to be believed, but the film as a whole is not an essential view. It’s a portmanteau of tones and quirks that threatens to be derailed by its own self-awareness, yet is held together by Sean Penn’s taste for eyeliner.

Penn plays Cheyenne, an aging rock star based heavily on The Cure’s Robert Smith (right down to the fear of flying) and sounding like Bill Murray in Ed Wood. Slow of walk and slower of speech, Cheyenne seems burnt out by excess gigging and narcotics. There’s a melancholy surrounding him that belies his wealth, his happy marriage to firefighter Jane (Frances McDormand, kookily lovable as always) and his penchant for lipstick. This eccentric sadness is also clear in Paolo Sorrentino’s direction. The acclaimed director of The Consequences of Love and Il Divo makes his English langage debut with a film that is so bafflingly and self-consciously bizarre that its impossible to forget, yet just as impossible to define. Picture, if you can, Cheyenne traipsing around Dublin, childlike, depressed and looking for definition. Where can this story go?

It’s unlikely you’d guess ‘Nazi hunting’. Cheyenne returns to the US for his estranged father’s funeral, and ends up finding the opportunity he’s been looking for: to hunt the Nazi commandant (Heinz Lieven) who humiliated his father in Auschwitz. This unexpected turn takes Cheyenne across the US in a beautiful but episodic trip that plays like The Straight Story as directed by Terry Gilliam. Along the way, Cheyenne befriends a fellow Nazi-hunter (Judd Hirsch), a diner waitress (Kerry Condon), plays ping-pong in the desert and gets under the nose of suspicious old ladies (“Would you like to kill me, dear?”). It’s Sorrentino’s outside view that makes this dive into the depths of Americana a decidedly different trip. Played straight, it’d fall apart; This Must Be The Place’s aspirations to curio status may not bind Sorrentino’s vision together fully, but you’ll rarely be bored. Stare agog as giant bottles of whiskey and men dressed as Batman flit across the screen. What does it all mean? Damned if we ever find out, but hey, at least we got a laugh! Once we do, however, the Nazi hunt continues and we’re left unsure what to think.

Right from the start, This Must Be The Place is doomed to be cinematic Marmite. On the one hand, it’s pleasantly weird and flirts with deep ideas. On the other, it’s tonally awkward and uneven, reverting constantly back to the self-conscious efforts at artiness. The story begins in Ireland and hints at tragedy in Cheyenne’s past, but is then dropped like a hot potato as Cheyenne hits the road. At least Penn is an excellent constant. Appearing in practically every scene, his performance is understated but full of off-kilter presence and likability. Supports are underused but well-acted (Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson is of note as Cheyenne’s daughter), and the whole affair looks great (DP Luca Bigazzi keeps things crisp and clear). Best of all is the soundtrack; the film’s title comes from the Talking Heads’ classic song, and David Byrne’s performance of the song is a high point of the film. Byrne and Will Oldham also contribute several songs to the soundtrack under the guise of a band named The Pieces of Shit. Admit it: you’d buy the CD just for that band name.

Flitting back and forth between plots and tones, TMBTP is too distant to be embraced, yet too interesting to be ignored. Cheyenne observes that “Life is full of beautiful things”. This Must Be The Place is also full of beautiful things, but this beauty is in dire need of a stronger context.

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