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Italy/France/Ireland 2011
Directed by
Paolo Sorrentino
110 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

This Must Be The Place

Synopsis: Cheyenne (Sean Penn), a 1980s pop star burnt-out now living in Ireland sets off to the U.S.A. to visit his dying father. By the time he gets there his progenitor is dead. Going through his father’s effects he discovers that he was obsessed with trying to find an SS officer who had been his jailer at Auschwitz and who may still be alive somewhere in the American mid-West. The estranged Cheyenne decides to finish the hunt.

The plot of This Must Be The Place is pretty much a red herring and anyone who goes to it looking for a step-by-step narrative will be sorely disappointed. Italian director and author of the original story, Paolo Sorrentino, delights in going against the grain and disrupting this over-engineered storyline with whimsical side-trips is just one of the many devices he employs to avoid conventionality.

One of the major elements of this approach is, of course, the casting of Sean Penn in the lead. Most people will be hooked by the film’s poster image of what looks like Penn in drag. He’s actually playing a washed-up pop star who looks like The Cure’s lead singer, Robert Smith. Or perhaps Edward Scissorhands without the shears would be closer to the mark as Penn plays his character, who is supposed to have burnt out his synapses through years of drug abuse, as if he had dropped from another world, a stranger in a strange land with a high-pitched voice and a nervous laugh who is kept together largely thanks to his devoted, down-to-earth. fire-fighting wife (Frances McDormand) who still excites his sexual ardour.

For at least the first third of the film nothing much happens and the main amusement is following the maudlin Cheyenne as he goes about his daily activities, which frankly involves very little. If you find the image of a burnt-out 50 year old rock star in full stage make-up sitting in a muzak-bathed shopping mall cafeteria drinking tepid coffee then you’re going to love this film.

After Cheyenne arrives in the US, the film kicks up a notch or two dynamically as it goes into road movie mode although it still sticks close to its wilfully offbeat agenda.  Sorrentino has cited David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999) as an influence (there is also a clear reference to Blue Velvet (1986) in the latter part of the film) although I kept thinking of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) for its fascination with the iconic imagery of provincial America, the laminex and naugahyde roadhouse diners, the neglected dust bowl motels and the flat, seemingly endless highway, all captured beautifully by the almost hyper-real cinematography. That Harry Dean Stanton turns up briefly can be taken as an acknowledgement of that connection.

Everything about the film is about an outsider looking in and as Sorrentino is a native Italian, sometimes it is hard to know whether the incongruities of the film are intentional non sequitors or whether they are, like Euro-pop, the unintended result of differing cultural codes. Like the name Cheyenne, for instance, a reference to the post-punk band Siouxsie and the Banshees but one which completely lacks the latter’s punning wit, or the reference to Mick Jagger which fails to recognize the incompatibility of Cheyenne’s brand of doom-pop and hip-grinding rock 'n' roll. There is also some kind of moral attached to the Holocaust aspect of the story and how people deal with suffering leading to redemptive pay-off at the film’s end but, once again, there seems to be certain cultural assumptions which have not translated too well from the Italian. For the most part, however, the film is engaging enough in its quirkiness to make specific meaning a quite secondary issue.

If there is not a lot to take home, for the time that it lasts This Must Be The Place is engagingly enigmatic, off-beat without being arch, visually delicious and provides if not great acting by Penn, certainly his most unusual performance to date.




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