Avenging the father
This Must Be the Place is the first film made outside Italy by the director Paolo Sorrentino, whose work is droll and stylized. His films tend to unroll in a series of vividly realized set pieces, and this one is brightly colored and otherwise visually stunning, though the content runs a bit dry. The style can be best observed in his most famous film, Il Divo, which like the rather warmer and more human previous one,The Consequences of Love, starred the great Italian actor Toni Servillo. This time the hieratic, semi-inert, iconic central Servillo surrogate is, of all people, Sean Penn. And instead of the perennial political boss Giulio Andreotti of Il Divo or the trapped mafia collaborator addicted to heroin of Consequences, Penn is Cheyenne, an aging, retired rock star in heavy white pancake makeup salted away at a big mansion in Ireland, who talks in a slow, weak, quavery voice, but speaks in a fussily precise manner. He’s like “a post-punk bad boy,” A.O. Scott of the Times writes, who’s “turned into a kooky old lady.” It’s surely Penn’s oddest performance, but it palls after a while. The camera dwells too long on his ghostly mug, and not having preposterous-seeming but real historical people and events to focus on as Il Divo does, Sorrentino gets lost in the European’s typical outsider’s familiarly quirky vision of America. Not enough significant “consequences” this time.
Living off investments, Cheyenne still wears the bright red lipstick, eye liner, unruly black mane, tight pants and laced up boots of his Eighties performing heyday just to sit around in the sparely but expensively updated castle in Ireland where he resides, safe from taxes, with his wife Jane (Frances McDormand). They have lively sex, thanks to her, and play an intense and esoteric ball game in the empty swimming pool. She works on the side as a firefighter, needing to unwind, like the character in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds who “ran five miles around the town to dissipate the unwanted energy that sleep engenders.” The star hasn’t performed for fifteen years, and isn’t doing much. He has long given up drugs and alcohol and never smoked, though he seems numbed out and drug-addled. He shambles forward when he walks like an old man and goes about pulling a tiny cart on wheels as if playing at being a homeless person. His only project is to fix up a teenage Goth girl friend (Eve Hewson, real-life daughter of Bono) with an ordinary young man called Desmond (Sam Keeley) who introduces himself at a mall fast food joint and takes the gentle Cheyenne’s fancy.
These earlier parts are best because they are so close to pure style; the zen of Penn is amusing and almost hypnotic, and there is a drama of expectation. What, we wonder, is this zombie-like figure, this pale stuffed man, easily as mannered as the manikin-like Andreotti of Il Divo, going to do? Because he has to do something, surely. For a while it is fun just seeing him getting revenge on some silly girls who stare at him in a supermarket, or chat with his ordinary, misogynistic friend Jeffrey (Simon Delaney), or go through his odd daily routines. But eventually the mortal illness of his orthodox Jewish father, in New York, leads him to return to the United States, not an easy process since he is afraid of flying, indeed even throws up at the thought of a train trip. There is a lot he’s forgotten how to do. A major revival is needed, and there is one, except that lots of random quirk gets in its way.
Arrival by boat in New York jolts the film into a wholly new set of scenes and rules that have little to do with what’s come before. His father was a holocaust survivor, who spent years vainly pursuing a Nazi guard who humiliated him in the camp. His father is dead when Cheyenne arrives, having not been in contact with him for thirty years. Through his younger brother Jeffrey (Israeli actor Liren Levo), Cheyenne consults with a grotesquely macho professional war criminal hunter, Mordecai Midler (an unrestrained Judd Hirsch), and then sets forth in search of the guard, Aloise Lange (Heinz Lieven). A series of set pieces follow, with some lovely stylized tableaux that sometimes recall the drawings of Saul Steinberg in their uniquely Old World celebration of quaint American grotesquerie. Along the way there’s an all-too-brief, but always welcome, sit-down with Harry Dean Stanton, who claims to have invented the suitcase on wheels now so prevalent. And there is a song performance, as himself, by David Byrne, another of whose songs provides the film title and is sung by a boy to Cheyenne’s accompaniment on acoustic guitar.
The trouble with these and other picturesque episodes is that they pave the way to a finale that is anticlimactic, along a path that is even slightly confusing. It’s hard to keep track of all the characters, or follow what the final scenes mean. Sorrentino seems reluctant to edit his postcards from America even when their sheer visual oddity adds nothing to the narrative thrust and fails to nail a mood the way, say, Aki Kaurismäki might have done using similar material. While it’s in the nature of Sorrentino’s method to exercise a high level of control, he loses some of that in the helter-skelter last act where various earlier characters are hastily alluded to and Cheyenne, strangely, abandons his look, undermining his iconic identity. But then even Il Divo tends to leave its audience in the lurch. We must give this still fairly young director (he’s now 42) credit for being uniquely himself, even if he seems slightly disoriented in this out-of-country performance.
DIRECTORS: PAOLO SORRENTINO
WRITER: PAOLO SORRENTINO
STARS: SEAN PENN, FRANCES MCDORMAND, JUDD HIRSCH, EVE HEWSON, KERRY CONTON, HARRY DEAN STANTON
RUNTIME: 118 MIN