This Must Be the Place
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
This road movie, starring Sean Penn as a not-all-there former rock god slowed to a shuffle by sciatica, does not proceed smoothly, but it might be enjoyed as a genre mash-up curiosity—an aimless American-scene travelogue wedded to an objective-based amateur-detective movie. That way, the clamorous tone is at least (partially) accounted for. In pursuit of a more internalized, less normative belated-coming-of-age picture, writer-director Sorrentino (of the Oscar-nominated Il Divo, here making his English-language debut) settles into his protagonist’s skewed-view headspace, warped by a near-lifetime of worldwide fame as a goth-pop poet.
The model here appears to be the Cure's Robert Smith, with a dash of Neverland: as Cheyenne, Penn appears wearing heavy makeup and feyly blowing frizzed-out strands of pitch-black hair from his sightline; frequent accessories include edge-of-nose reading glasses and a rickety granny cart. Haggard yet painstakingly put-together, he speaks, slowly, in vacant life-experience aphorisms, often punctuated by a high, reedy giggle. This is a marvelously unpredictable collection-of-gestures showcase, but it’s often hard to see past the aggressively against-type star turn.
The story proper commences when Cheyenne, an American in a placid sort of self-exile in Dublin with his firefighter wife (Frances McDormand), gets word that his estranged father is dying, and he must overcome his fear of flying to return to the Orthodox Jewish community where he was raised. Through a sense of delayed filial obligation that’s never made entirely intelligible—and after bearing his soul to old friend David Byrne (playing himself, and also performing the title Talking Heads song)—Cheyenne undertakes to finish his father’s lifelong mission of eliminating his Auschwitz tormentor, who has spent the postwar decades fleeing westward across the United States. (Judd Hirsch’s professional Nazi hunter offers begrudging assistance.) As if to signal that his protagonist is triumphantly reentering the flow of history, Sorrentino shows snippets from the 2008 campaign trail on background motel televisions. Meanwhile, the director curiously avoids any significant moral consideration of his main character’s mission or methods of investigation. Many bystanders fondly recognize him, and none really end up interfering with his progress.
Cheyenne might be avenging a historical wrong, but Sorrentino spends the bulk of the ensuing trip in an anodyne study of the interaction between natural splendor, just-folks tourist kitsch, and Cheyenne’s rainy-day demeanor. These Americana passages unfurl as a catalog of weird-wonderment snapshots: a fallen whiskey-bottle billboard blocks Cheyenne’s path; he stops to admire a local-marvel statue commemorating a gigantic pistachio; and he makes unlikely barroom buddies with a rough-looking tattoo artist who talks in a friendly wheeze.
In telling the story of an American getting in touch with his roots by tracking an evil German through the heartland, Sorrentino seems to be attempting a sort of batshit inversion of Wim Wenders’s 1974 Alice in the Cities, in which respectful on-assignment observer Rüdiger Vogler pursues the American subject until he doesn’t anymore, and then it haunts him back across Europe. (Also bringing vintage Wenders to mind, Paris, Texas’s Harry Dean Stanton turns up here for a particularly miscalculated scene as the inventor of the rolling suitcase, whom Cheyenne meets at a far-flung diner.) But, perhaps because we’ve spent so much of this otherwise sprawling movie roughly aligned with Cheyenne’s particular point of view, the takeaway feels depressingly narrow, not to mention uncritical: that even the most maladjusted celebrities might find a way to help themselves, and settle other scores besides, with the free rein they’re afforded.
Opens November 2