This Must Be the Place
Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino
Cast: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, Harry Dean Stanton
Running Time: 1 hr 58 mins
Release Date: November 16, 2012
PLOT: A former goth rocker named Cheyenne (Penn) living in Dublin travels to America to kill a former Nazi who humiliated his father decades ago.
WHO’S IT FOR? Though inhabitants of the art house might be able to something of it, this movie will be best enjoyed by Penn cynics. If you’ve ever laughed at one of his many unsubtle moments as an actor, here is a full film of Penn falling apart.
It seems like all Hollywood actors play the clown at least once. Such often undeniably bad decisions come in the shape of integrity-questioning comedies, like when Stallone did Rhinestone or Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, or when Eastwood did Pink Cadillac (in which Eastwood actually dressed like a clown in the beginning). Sean Penn, who once flirted with that Farrelly Brothers Three Stooges movie, finally puts on his own clown makeup with This Must Be the Place. But, as Penn lacks any understanding of subtlety to nearly anything he does, this ain’t no Pagliacci. This is a fiery airliner-turned-bomb ready to crash it into the art house, with pilot Penn setting himself on fire for all to watch. Even when playing a soft-spoken character with nothing much to say, the actor shows desperation for attention.
While dressed up as this Robert Smith-looking fellow, with heavy white make-up, red lipstick, and large pitch black hair, Penn shows that he’s aware of the goofiness of this character. He even says the statement, “We all play the fool sometimes.” To this film’s dismay, however, such conveyance of smartness doesn’t make this role any less pathetic. Every line that he whimpers, which comes with a small whisper and an often dead face, is more successful as a joke against Penn and/or this movie than an emotional sentiment. This Must Be the Place is most memorable for its freakshow moments, which it can’t spin its favor. And yet this movie plays it seriously, as does Penn, convinced there is something to be said in this bizarre story in which general sense is not one of its common features.
Like its center character, This Must Be the Place is enigmatic to the bone, a thoroughly odd movie that makes fully recounting and explaining Cloud Atlas sound less of an exhaustive chore. In brushes of artsy-fartsy-ness the movie toys with the concept of serendipity, while also throwing in surreal images in its projected world of realism that seem to lack the potential for explanation (like when a massive bottle of beer blocks Cheyenne on the road, or when an old man rolls by Cheyenne in a parking lot, riding a hayride-like vehicle).
I have to be fair to Penn, however. There is at least one scene in which the bizarre emotional work he’s intending for does build up to something, and of course it is a moment in which Penn is howling and screaming with pain, as he opens himself wide to David Byrne about what’s really going on in his mind. Although it is in Penn’s wheelhouse, it’s better than the blank nothingness he provides as the rest of Cheyenne, a frustrating character with only brushes of the hair used to physically express thought.
In a too-bizarre-to-spoil appearance that is perfectly weird for such a movie as This Must Be the Place, Harry Dean Stanton does appear in the movie briefly in the third act, when things start to heat up, and also gets even weirder (if such was possible). His screen-time is low, but the veteran actor does show some giddiness in a wild monologue that he gives about rolling suitcases (a favorite item of Cheyenne’s). It is just one of many surreal moments in which the film toys with coincidence, only to just look entirely silly.
More likable than most people in the movie, McDormand moves in and out of the picture as Cheyenne’s wife, who adds some of the dreamier aspects to the movie that the script is not so clear on. McDormand has a little sunshine as the balance to Cheyenne’s chaos, but she doesn’t have any bit of character herself. Most of all, she is meant to serve as an image of a spouse as a caretaker, with little emotional results.
With the man given a prominent cameo in which Cheyenne proclaims him a genius, David Byrne contributes bits to the score of the film, which gives it more of an upbeat, late 80s attitude than one may expect (especially considering the anchoring that Penn’s Robert Smith imitation would be doing). Fans of the Talking Heads will get to see Byrne onscreen in his pure glory, wearing white on white, performing “This Must Be the Place” himself, before a chubby boy sings it with Penn later (in case you wanted to hear it again).
The cinematography in the film has its own attitude, constantly creating images that have more immediacy than anything happening with the story. Often the camera takes delight in empty space, which puts the movie’s unique, revolving locations into use. At times such wideness (and with a lot of tracking shots) doesn’t really serve any grand poetic purpose, but it certainly isn’t affected by the numbness that reaches other parts of the movie. And this isn’t something I seem to be alone on – while This Must Be the Place was nominated for 11 national film awards (the David di Donatellos) including “Best Make-Up” and “Best Screenplay,” not one kudos was towards Penn … but they sure liked that cinematography.
A wacky anti-comedy played with serious-face art house intentions, This Must Be the Place might make more sense if it were put into the hands of Disney auteurs like Walt Becker (Wild Hogs, Old Dogs) or Raja Gosnell (Beverly Hills Chihuahua). The movie has the makings for such, including a road trip set up about a wackadoo middle-aged man embarking on a personal journey. With its bizarre execution and general pathetic-ness, this movie doesn’t speak beyond the same levels that Old Dogs speaks about being old, or the necessity to keeping your drugs under control. If someone were to kick a soccer ball into Sean Penn’s nuts, that wouldn’t be out of place for this film. It would probably be considered artful.
FINAL SCORE: 4/10