Sean Penn, FrancesMcDormand in “This Must Be the Place”

Release date: November 2, 2012 (ltd.)
Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino
Screenplay by: Paolo Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello
Cast: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, Eve Hewson,
Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton, Joyce Van Patten, David Byrne

Running Time: 118 minutes

If we’d heard that Italian director/writer Paolo Sorrentino and his screenwriting partner Umberto Contarello had cooked up the idea of This Must Be the Place during some drug and grappa-fueled session, it would make perfect sense. Imagining the conversation, perhaps Sorrentino would say, “Let’s write about a retired rock star, modeled after the iconic Robert Smith of The Cure, rattling around his giant mansion in Ireland with his offbeat firefighter wife. He travels to New York to reconcile with his estranged father who’s dying. After learning of his father’s suffering at the hands of a Nazi guard at Auschwitz, the ex-rocker decides to take a trot across the U.S. in order to hunt him down.”

Contarello would agree, further suggesting, “And let’s get Sean Penn to star. Maybe we can talk him into donning a ratty, long-haired wig and smearing his face with Goth makeup. We’ll cast Frances McDormand as the wife and, since the ex-rocker hasn’t a clue how to find old Nazis in hiding, Judd Hirsch can play an Elie Wiesel-type Nazi hunter who helps him.”

“Great! What do you think are chances are of getting David Byrne to do the music?”

In conclusion, they would decide that this would be Sorrentino’s first English-speaking feature. Crazy, no?

Actually, not so much. Sorrentino delivers a gloriously magical movie, a road film crossed with a fiftysomething coming-of-age piece, with side trips to the land of the eccentric. In the opening scenes, we see Penn’s Cheyenne steadfastly applying his daily eyeliner and lipstick, followed by a hard-fought game of handball with his spouse, McDormand’s Jane, that takes place at the bottom of their drained, oversized pool. Once he travels to the States, we get stirring shots of Cheyenne – a small Goth figure dragging his four-wheeled tote behind him like a loyal doggy on a leash – juxtaposed against the vast open spaces of the American landscape.

Between Byrne’s jubilant soundtrack (the movie gives us an additional jolt when an elaborate staging of the title song by Byrne & Co. suddenly floods the screen), idiosyncratic characters, and frequent interjections of deadpan humor (upon Jane’s asking if Cheyenne is trying to find himself, he replies, “I’m in New Mexico, not India”), the movie’s a decidedly crazy quilt. And yet, it all serves to underlie the gravitas of an unloved son, a stranger to the country as well as himself, trying to do right by his recently-deceased father.

Penn is a revelation. Not since Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man have we seen such a riveting transmogrification, with his depressed rhythms, flat, tremulous voice and a high-pitched vocalization that we come to understand is his laugh. We initially assume there’s not much to this drugged-out fellow – however, as the film progresses, Cheyenne’s eyes clear, his voice takes on a new strength and we realize there’s a relatively good brain underneath all that teased and tormented hair. The glazed demeanor of a melancholic teen spirit is replaced by a wobbly new grown-up, learning to embrace a world that he’d isolated himself from thirty years ago.

For a wide-swinging film that ultimately delivers a resounding message of redemption and celebration, This Must Be the Place … is the place to be.
Rating on a scale of 5 goose-stepping Psycho Killers: 4

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