The promising combination of Italian master Paolo Sorrentino’s English language debut toplined by American acting icon Sean Penn as an aging Goth musician turned Nazi hunter seems too deliriously good to be true. And, as a cohesively entertaining film, that’s mostly true. One only has to look at the film’s marketing campaign to see how buzz about the film has been ratcheted solely by use of Penn’s costume inspiring visage, resembling a plucked scarecrow recycled for one too many harvests. This is the blessing and the curse of Sorrentino’s bizarre exercise, This Must Be The Place, thus named after the Talking Heads tune, a film that manages to give us a humorous and amusing performance from Penn, who dominates every frame, but resists blending successfully with the rest of the narrative.
Cheyenne (Sean Penn), is a former rock star, now entering his early 50s and still insistently adorning his Goth persona as he quietly resides in Dublin with his unassuming and plain wife, Jane (Frances McDormand). While he lives off royalties, Jane is a firefighter, a steadfast supporter of her husband, quietly urging him to resume the career he stalled years ago. Cheyenne spends his time with a depressed young woman named Mary (Eve Hewson), who he mildly tries to help fall in love. Mary lives with her depressed mother (Olwen Fouere), and a later scene featuring David Byrne as himself, a contemporary from Cheyenne’s career days, explains Cheyenne’s current isolation in Dublin and his mysterious connection to Mary’s family. Out of the blue, Cheyenne receives a call that his father, with whom he’s been estranged for thirty years, has passed away in New York City. Flying to attend the funeral services, Cheyenne learns from an old friend of his father’s, a Nazi hunter, Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch), that his dad had been insistently trying to find a Nazi that had humiliated him at Auschwitz. Though he was convinced that his father never loved him, Cheyenne decides to take up the search where his father left off, as the Nazi he sought was considered too inconsequential for Midler to hunt down. What follows is a roadtrip through the US where Cheyenne gets to learn a few things about himself along the way.
Inevitably, Penn’s look, his rough hewn face delicately powdered, his eyes heavy with dark mascara, and his raven hair teased to a delirious Edward Scissorhands coiff, will be considered an homage to Robert Smith. But more often than not, his quiet baby voice murmur always several decibels below normal people speak, he looks like he could be the unhinged spinster sister of Kristin Scott Thomas. And while Penn’s weird little performance may be reason enough to tune in, he’s often as grating as he is amusing, especially in scenes that seem a bit too trite to be meaningful (like visiting the suspected Nazi’s wife, in a bit part for Joyce Van Patten, or an unsavory dinner scene where he tries to hook Mary up with a depressed boy from the mall). This Must Be the Place isn’t without some other choice cameos, Hirsch, and even Harry Dead Stanton get to make notable, if inconsequential appearances.
Some could plausibly argue that maybe This Must Be the Place feels so disjointed because of some sort of cultural barrier, something maybe lost in translation with Sorrentino working outside his native language, but this seems too easy an explanation as this film should not to be dismissed as readily as Wong Kar Wai’s flawed 2008 English language debut, My Blueberry Nights. A more likely explanation of what’s wrong with the film is that it feels like a really good idea that wasn’t fully developed into a sound narrative.
Sorrentino’s visual flourishes are readily evident, and there’s a lot of focus on eyes, Penn’s highlighted baby blues especially on display here, with many a deadpan close up of droll reaction shots. But there’s an inescapable lack of gravitas surrounding the strangely muted search (and supposed punishment) for this aged Nazi, as if both the screenwriter and Cheyenne find this an interesting idea but neither quite have the energy to properly pursue it. The conundrum is this—the film dangerously gives us a scenario that overrides its nature as a character study of the Sean Penn character, but, then desperately declaws the Nazi humiliation angle to avoid doing so, which only results in diminishing the grave history it so tackily exploits.
If one recalls the wonderful Nazi hunting Laurence Olivier in Franklin Schaffner’s 1978 The Boys From Brazil, he memorably detains the wicked Uta Hagen with one smug multi-accented line, “You’re not going….anywhere.” In the long, subdued crawl to its final frame, one could say the same of This Must Be the Place.