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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review: This Must Be The Place (2011)

* * *

Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Sean Penn

Where to begin discussing This Must Be The Place? It's an odd little bird of a film, one which courts the bizarre so openly that it should be annoying, one which takes such a hard left turn between its first and second acts that the whole thing ought to come apart in front of your eyes, one anchored by a performance that seems at first like it will be too mannered to be compelling. A movie like this shouldn't work, it has so many potential liabilities, but it's actually pretty delightful. I knew almost nothing about it before watching it and as it started, I experienced a slight sinking feeling, as the protagonist seemed tailor-made for Johnny Depp (and not necessarily in a good way) but on a Sean Penn budget. Very quickly, however, the film won me over - and that's despite the fact that, objectively, I'm not totally convinced that it actually works as a story.

The film opens in Dublin where Cheyenne (Penn), a retired musician quite clearly based on Robert Smith, putters around doing not much of anything at all. He's been married for 35 years to Jane (Frances McDormand), a firefighter whose cheerfulness seems to be in stark contrast to his own morose personality until you see them alone together and see the playful way that they interact with each other; he spends some days with Mary (Eve Hewson), a teenage fan whose mother seems to spend all her time smoking and staring out the window, watching for her son, who disappeared some time ago, and he makes some efforts at matchmaking her with a young man whose bumbling attempts to get her attention only earn him her derision; and other days with Jeffrey (Simon Delaney), a ladies' man who regales him with tales of his latest conquests whether Cheyenne wants to hear about it or not. He has the money and resources to do anything that he wants, but he's stuck. He confesses to Jane that he thinks he's depressed, and she tells him that she thinks he's just bored, and later he laments that there's so many things that he no longer does. Then he finds out that his father, whom he hasn't spoken to in 30 years, is dying.

Up until this point, This Must Be The Place is sort of a "hang out" movie, following Cheyenne from one casual interaction to another, unfolding at a leisurely pace, seemingly plotless. However, when Cheyenne travels to New York to see his father (who has died by the time he arrives, as a result of his fear of flying causing him to travel by boat across the Atlantic), a plot suddenly presents itself. After learning that his father, an Auschwitz survivor, had spent decades trying to track down the SS officer who had tormented him, Cheyenne begins taking steps to bring the investigation to completion. He first has a meeting with Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch), a professional Nazi hunter that his father had attempted to hire, only to be told that the man his father was searching for is too minor a figure to be worth seeking out. Unsatisfied, and beginning to feel something like a sense of purpose in discovering his father's unfinished quest, Cheyenne decides to use the clues that his father had already gathered and finish what he started.

Directed and co-written by Paolo Sorrentino, This Must Be The Place bears some of the hallmarks of Sorrentino's other works (among them Il Divo and last year's Youth), including dynamic camera movements and so much bouncing around between themes and tones and narrative threads that it sometimes feels like the movie has ADD. I imagine that it's the type of movie you might describe as an acquired taste; I can easily see why it might not appeal to some viewers because it is a really weird movie. That said, it's also surprisingly hilarious considering that it's about a rock star who thinks he's depressed and goes looking for a Nazi who may already be dead as a means of bridging the gap between himself and the father that he felt didn't love him because of his non-conformist appearance, and sometimes rather poignant. Nine out of ten filmmakers couldn't pull this movie off, but Sorrentino somehow manages to do it, to walk the high wire from one end to the other without falling off, and to do it in such a relaxed fashion that even the moments that scream of contrivance or affectation instead seem almost natural and fitting.

Part of the film's overall success is attributable to the performance by Penn, an actor who, in life and in film, tends to exude a certain degree of... let's call it "thugishness." Hotheaded assholishness seems to come naturally to him, which is why a performance as a gentle character like Harvey Milk seems so transcendent. That same kind of transcendence is at play in This Must Be The Place, where he plays Cheyenne as a quiet mouse of a man, haunted by events of the past for which he feels some responsibility, while also making him a strong enough personality that he has the courage to just be who he is, regardless of what anyone else might think, and imbuing him with a sly, subtle humor. Penn isn't an actor who is synonymous with comedy, but he's quite funny here and he manages to create a fully fleshed out human being out of his character, rather than letting the make up (and there is a ton of make up) and hairstyling do all the work. It's certainly one of his stranger characters and performances, but I'm also inclined to rank it as one of his best and most moving.

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