Review :: Big Screen – This Must Be The Place
April 5th 2012
Nick La Rosa
How’s this for a plot summary: in ‘This Must Be The Place’, Sean Penn plays Cheyenne, a bored retired rock star who lives in a big mansion in Dublin and looks a lot like Robert Smith, complete with giant hair and lots of make-up. He is married to a down to earth firefighter named Jane, who he plays a lot of handball with in an empty pool. He is also trying to set up one of his young fans, Mary, with a waiter at the mall. Mary is played by Bono’s daughter. Then he learns of the death of his father, who he hasn’t seen in 30 years, and impulsively decides to board a boat and travel to New York, where he discovers that his father dedicated much of his adult life to hunting the SS guard who humiliated him while he was in Auschwitz. Cheyenne decides to continue this quest and engages on a cross country Nazi hunting road trip, but not before he has a chat with David Byrne from the Talking Heads.
‘This Must Be The Place’ is not an easy film to review. I really quite liked it. A buddy of mine just loathed it. Oddly enough I pretty much agreed with every one of his problems with the film, particularly the way it uses the holocaust as a plot point, but doesn’t really engage with it.
Director Paulo Sorrentino’s film is willfully bizarre. It really isn’t interested in telling a story, which is weird given it makes a point of having such a bonkers plot. I’m not sure why Sorrentino, who also co-wrote the screenplay, felt the need to saddle himself with all of this narrative gymnastics when he is clearly happier just letting Sean Penn ramble through long digressions, and silly interludes, or capturing amazing scenery in beautiful long wide takes. I found it a kind of hypnotic experience, at times just staggering beautiful. Others will get restless watching a long take of David Byrne in concert with a living room suspended vertically behind him, or seeing a nude old man stumble around for a long time in the snow, and really who could blame them. Like with David Lynch, it’s easy to be distracted by the insanity, and miss the themes the film wrestles with like men trapped by their past, parents without children, and how to make sure your lipstick doesn’t fade.
Stumbling through it all with sleepy eyes is Sean Penn, looking like an absolute maniac. It’s really wonderful to watch a movie star give a performance this big and risky, without seeing the twinkle of an Oscar nomination in their eyes. Penn makes some choices I’m not sure I liked. His voice is squeaky, and he plays the whole film bored, delivering lines like “I guess pedantry is a useful attribute for a Nazi Hunter” as though he were giving directions to the nearest bathroom. But still, you can’t help but appreciate the courage. It would have been nice too to spend some more time with Frances McDormand, who plays his awesome wife Jane. The opening half hour does nothing to drive the plot along but it’s probably the films strongest passage, mostly due to how great McDormand is.
In the end I give ‘This Must Be The Place’ a tentative thumbs up; I’m very glad I saw it, even if I’m still kind of mystified. I can’t promise that you won’t hate it, and I certainly understand if you do, though I can promise you will talk about it, laugh about it and remember it.