Nov 8, 2012

This Must Be The Place

An interesting train wreck of a movie by Paolo Sorrentino, the film stars Sean Penn as Cheyenne, a washed out emo rocker who lives in a sad, grand mansion in Ireland (to avoid taxes) and is bored out of his meager wits, which seem to have been extinguished by a life of drug use. The main problem with the movie is Penn's performance, which as committed as it is, and not without flashes of humor and slyness, is too exaggerated to be believable. Penn makes Cheyenne a soft spoken mess, a too delicate spirit still wearing makeup and hideous eighties hair long past his expiration date, but he turns out to be wily once he finds a purpose in life. Cheyenne is depressed because his morose songs made a young fan commit suicide. His wife, the fantastic Frances McDormand, (despite her spirited performance, it's impossible to understand what she sees in him), tells him he needs to find something to do with his life. He decides to go to America to see his father, whom he hasn't talked to in thirty years. The father turns out to be an orthodox Jew and Holocaust survivor. Cheyenne learns that the Nazi who tortured him is still around, and goes on a quest to find him. His wispy façade conceals a man with a healthy force of will: the pathetic ex-rocker becomes a pretty effective Nazi headhunter. The movie is a moral fable about guilt and consequences, about children and parents, about people holding dark secrets that spread misery around like an invisible force field. What makes it fascinating is the contrast between its haunting sadness and Sorrentino's trademark crisp, hyperrealistic visual style (Luca Bigazzi is the cinematographer). The movie doesn't quite work, but you can't avert your eyes. Cheyenne goes from New York, where he confides in his friend David Byrne, playing himself, to the Southwest, to the Midwest, and I was bracing for the usual European filmmaker oversimplifying of America and its Marlboro country vistas, but Sorrentino is smarter than that. He doesn't caricature America or its people, he trains his stylish eye on its endless landscapes. The movie looks gorgeous.
Cheyenne's search leads him to the Nazi's granddaughter (a great Kerry Condon) and her chubby misfit of a son, and the three develop a tender friendship. This is the best part of the movie, the most quietly moving. The rest is tonally jarring, deeply unbalanced by a central performance that doesn't quite jell and a strained ending. But the music by David Byrne and Will Oldham is lovely and if you decide to go on the quirky ride, This Must Be The Place has, at moments, a certain amount of grace.

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