This Must Be the Place: Cannes 2011 Review

This Must Be the Place film still
Cannes Film Festival
An eccentric performance by Sean Penn as a reclusive rocker is the central attraction of this highly erratic film.

Eccentric, misguided and occasionally charming and sweet, this curiosity item is unlikely to be embraced critically or commercially.

Negotiating a consistent artistic path as steadily as a drunk walking a straight line, This Must Be the Place is all over the place dramatically, tonally and thematically. In his first English-language feature, Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino centers on a character even stranger (and stranger looking) than the main character of his 2008 Cannes hit Il Divo -- a goth rocker who emerges from a 30-year seclusion to take an unexpected road trip. Eccentric, misguided and occasionally charming and sweet, this curiosity item with Sean Penn in one of his nuttier performances is unlikely to be embraced critically or commercially.

A major problem Sorrentino unnecessarily creates for himself is placing the much-delayed maturation of the bizarre musician in the shadow of the holocaust, or vice versa. When the imminent death of his concentration camp survivor father obliges Cheyenne (Penn) to venture from his palatial home in Ireland to his native New York City for the first time since about 1980, the almost childlike fellow becomes involved with a professional Nazi hunter in searching for the German who victimized the father. Using this dramatic device under the pretext of giving weight to Cheyenne’s metamorphosis trivializes the holocaust on the one hand and introduces a pretention factor on the other, both of which detract from what qualities the film does have, which belong to an altogether lighter, more unpredictable realm.

A man who, even at home with his lively, more pragmatic wife (Frances McDormand), dresses in all-black and sports lipstick and eyeliner, Cheyenne is apparently good at investments but stunted in most other departments. As Penn plays him, adorned with a teased jet-black fright wig, Cheyenne moves and talks very slowly, almost as if underwater, even though the swimming pool at his vast Irish estate is drained so he and his wife can play a version of handball in it, his only apparent exercise.

For the film’s first half-hour, Cheyenne involves himself in some local drama involving a bereft mother’s missing son and punky daughter. Then, since he won’t fly, he travels by boat to New York, arriving in time to attend his father’s funeral, meet Nazi hunter Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch), who confesses that “I’m 79 years old and I’m still living in 1940,” and reunite with David Byrne, who performs an elaborate concert number in addition to having supplied much of the music for the film.

Continuing to resemble Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands more than any known human being, Cheyenne borrows a big black pickup (that he actually has a driver’s license seems like a dubious proposition) and makes an odyssey across the United States, with colorful pit-stops in Michigan, New Mexico and, finally, Utah. The not unusual encounters he has with random locals sometimes prove mutually beneficial, but while the ultimate resolution of the Nazi aspect is bizarre, the end result for Cheyenne is pretty sweet and satisfying.

Penn dominates the film, of course, although it’s a performance that slithers between the genuine and the stunt-like. The actor has pitched his voice higher than usual and a degree of artificiality infects not only the performance but the film as a whole. There are moments, however, when Penn finds authentic veins of character that are disarmingly childlike, naïve and sincere, aspects that convincingly portray what an unevolved man of this sort might actually be like.

Stylistically, Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi keep the camera constantly on the move, usually with swooping crane shots that create a sense of unneeded grandiosity as often as they impress. Irish and American locations have been imaginatively chosen.

VENUE: Cannes Film Festival (competition)
SALES: Pathe
PRODUCTION: Indigo Film, Lucky Red, Medusa Film
CAST: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, Eve Hewson, Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton, Joyce Van Patten, David Byrne, Olwen Fouere, Shea Whigham, Liron Levo, Heinz Lieven, Simon Delaney
DIRECTOR: Paolo Sorrentino
SCREENWRITERS: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contrarello, story by Paolo Sorrentino
PRODUCERS: Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima, Andrea Occhipinti, Medusa Film
EDITOR: Cristiano Travaglioli
MUSIC: David Byrne; LYRICS, Will Oldham
120 minutes