Review: This Must Be The Place
NOTE: This review originally ran January 24th as part of our Sundance 2012 coverage.
PLOT: When his father dies, a washed-up eighties pop star named Cheyenne (Sean Penn) leaves his Dublin estate, and his thoughtful wife (Frances McDormand) to travel to America and bury his estranged dad. Once there, he learns that his father, a Holocaust victim, was obsessed with tracking down the Nazi who tortured him at Auschwitz, leading Cheyenne to pick up the trail.
REVIEW: I'm not going to mince words. THIS MUST BE THE PLACE is a real train-wreck. I suspected as much after it's cool Cannes reception, but the participation of Penn, not to mention director Paolo Sorrentino (IL DIVO) made me want to give this the benefit of the doubt. Sadly, despite a strong visual style and an excellent soundtrack by David Byrne (it's named after the hit by The Talking Heads) and Will Oldham, THIS MUST BE THE PLACE is a mess and a half.
The idea of casting Penn as a washed up, eighties pop star isn't a bad one, as Penn seems game to poke a bit of fun at himself. However, the character is such a caricature, with his look being obviously patterned after Robert Smith of The Cure, and his nasally, grating voice resembling Andy Warhol (Penn never sings), he's pretty damn hard to identify with.
The absolute randomness of the plot doesn't help things either. The Nazi subplot doesn't happen until about forty-five minutes in, and even then it's just an excuse to motivate Penn's character to embark on a very- PARIS, TEXAS style roadtrip (with Harry Dean Stanton even popping up for a cameo). It's mostly just a meandering series of episodes where Cheyenne ingratiates himself into the lives of random characters, including a waitress and her son, a Nazi Hunter (Judd Hirsch) and a retired school teacher, who was once married to the Nazi he's tracking down. None of the episodes are particularly intertesting, and Penn's appeal wears very thin early on.
Sorrentino's heavy-handedness doesn't really help much, with it being so blunt as to have Penn's character literally pull baggage around throughout the film- just in case we don't get the fact that yes, his character has baggage.
The only person here who escapes with their dignity intact is Frances McDormand as Penn's sensible wife, although she's maybe too normal, as it doesn't seem believable that such a sane person would be able to put up with someone as crazy as Penn is throughout.
That said, bad as it is, I never had the urge to walk out- as it was such a train-wreck that I just had to see where it would eventually end up going. The resolution is as empty and wrong-headed as any I've seen in recent movies, but considering the insanity of the rest of the film, it's probably appropriate. Bad as it is, it's never dull, which I suppose is faint praise, but praise nonetheless. Still, I urge everyone pass on this- unless you're a devotee of eccentric cinema.