This was always going to be a mess. An Italian arthouse darling directing. An American road movie. Egomaniac Sean Penn playing emomaniac Robert Smith. Talking Heads. And Nazi hunting. The question was, is this going to be a glorious mess, or just a mess?
Let’s attempt to form some kind of a narrative out of the film. Cheyenne (Penn) is a bored rockstar living a hermitic existence in rural Ireland with his doting firefighter wife Jane (Frances McDormand). Yes, that’s right, she’s a firefighter. Deal with it. His numb life is interrupted by the news of his estranged father’s impending death in America. Too late to reconcile, Cheyenne discovers his late father’s career as a Nazi hunter, and seeks to resume his father’s search for the last remaining persecutor.
It’s at this point that This Must Be The Place morphs into it’s more conventional road movie structure, as Cheyenne mopes through the great American landscape, meeting a typically offfbeat range of characters along the way. In an obvious nod to Wim Wender’s superlative road movie Paris, Texas, Cheyenne meets a luggage designer played by Harry Dean Stanton. The two films share something in common; two respected European auteurs making the flight over to their beloved America, idolising it’s vast open spaces and neverending roads, it’s rock music and it’s sense of adventure. Let’s be clear though, This Must Be The Place is Paris, Texas’ muddled, wayward younger brother and no match for the real thing.
One of the most polarising aspects of the film comes in the form of our big haired, black strewn anti-hero Cheyenne. Sean Penn seems to veer between acting giant and worthy irritant with all the ease of a yo-yo, so for him to play a version of The Cure’s frontman is, at best, an intriguing proposition. At worst, it’s cringeworthy. Penn, evidently unaware of Smith’s actual blokiness, adopts a Michael Jackson style high pitched voice and childlike demeanour. There are moments when Cheyenne makes an uncharacteristic joke, and exhales a little giggle, and the audience sits in silence, as if a car crash is in motion.
Paolo Sorrentino’s direction is uniformly stylish, his camera gliding over squash courts, airports and even golden fields. The editing is, like his other films, snappy and slightly offbeat. Yet, you get the sense that his singular style worked so much better within the confines of his earlier mafia thrillers The Consequences of Love and Il Divo. Those two films in particular elevated him to the accolade of perhaps European cinema’s most stylish director, though he feels a little bit like a fish out of water here. However, This Must Be The Place is often visually striking, with the cinematography capturing the vivid blue skies with a childlike relish that must be an outsiders.
This Must Be The Place has moments of terribleness. It has moments of bewilderment. But it has more moments of offbeat joy and beauty. If it was to be deconstructed by the rules of Hollywood screenwriting, it would undoubtedly be torn apart. There are too many locations, too many subplots, too many themes. It feels like Paulo Sorrentino and his writers have brainstormed everything they love in the world and thrown it into a blender. It is not a great film, but destined to be a cult oddity. And that’s quite alright with me.