Paolo Sorrentino’s coolness credentials are well established, but he’s earned the right to be considered “cool” in an entirely different way with “This Must Be the Place,” a film that brims with warmth, humanity and respect in ways one doesn’t often find in the work of coolmeisters like David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino. Quirky, hilarious and moving, Sorrentino’s first English-lingo production is a road trip of stunning scope yet deep intimacy, featuring an aged rock star-turned-Nazi hunter played by Sean Penn at his transformative best. The pic may baffle but is certain to generate massive highbrow press and long-term cult status.
Though not a dime of Stateside coin is involved, this is very much a patchwork quilt of Americana reflecting the helmer’s engagement, in ways both positive and negative, with the country and its mythology. It’s also that rare film directed by a non-American that gets not just the locales but also the cadence of the language absolutely right, with a script full of great lines and images of lingering beauty.
Reducing the film to a plot description risks trivializing Sorrentino’s intentions, yet the seeming absurdity of the premise highlights the helmer’s ability (seen in his earlier pics) to reach deeply intelligent conclusions from what seem like bizarre setups. Just one look at Cheyenne (Penn), with his 1980s glam-rock hair and makeup (based on Robert Smith, lead singer of the Cure), and auds may initially find it hard to see the person beneath the granny glasses and quiet, high-pitched voice. Yet rather than going beyond appearances, the pic brilliantly incorporates them into the mix, making statements about loss and yes, even the Holocaust, in ways most films devoted to the subject can’t touch with anything approaching this deep-seated honesty.
Penn’s Cheyenne is a relic of the ’80s, a man whose brain seems fried from too much heroin and booze, who suffers from sciatica and moves with the stiffness of an arthritic zombie. Wise investments mean he doesn’t have to worry about money and he lives in a Dublin mansion with his wife of 35 years, Jane (Frances McDormand). Befitting her name, Jane is uncomplicated, down-to-earth, real.
He’s more complex, aware of his limitations as a pop star yet unable to move on, guilt-ridden over the double suicide of two brothers who took the Gothic despair in Cheyenne’s lyrics to their extreme, and insecure about his father’s love. The latter forms the pic’s jumping-off point when Cheyenne heads to New York upon learning that his father, a Jewish Orthodox Holocaust survivor he hasn’t spoken to in 30 years, is dying. He arrives too late, but is told by cousin Richard (Liron Levo) that his dad was obsessed with tracking down Aloise Lange (Heinz Lieven), a camp guard at Auschwitz. Cheyenne decides to continue the search, from Bad Axe, Mich., to Alamogordo, N.M.
Like all great directors who make a road movie, Sorrentino captures the physical location as well as the inner transformation, and in keeping with the genre he also knows Harry Dean Stanton has to be included (playing the man who patented wheels on suitcases — how’s that for extratextual symbolism?). Sorrentino’s America is a varied nation, one where Barack Obama and Sarah Palin spring from the same soil, and where narrow-minded history teachers (Joyce Van Patten) and welcoming war widows (Kerry Condon) have an equal place. He gets it, just as he gets the Holocaust’s omnipresence in the lives of those affected (contrasting Penn’s unlikely hunter with Judd Hirsch as a famed Nazi tracker), revealing the tragedy without dwelling on the horror.
Script by Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello is filled with memorable lines; whether it’s a flip sentence about rock stars or an insightful reflection on loss, the pic flows from one unusual situation to another, surprising and touching in equal measure. Penn’s flawless performance has none of the mannered intensity that can mar his work, transcending the masklike qualities of eyeliner and lipstick with deadpan, childlike candor.
All the acting is strong, from McDormand’s warm, straight-thinking companion to Eve Hewson as an Irish teenage fan and friend of Cheyenne’s coping with a sense of abandonment. There’s even an extraordinary concert scene that’ll have auds scratching their heads at how it’s done: Suffice to say there’s David Byrne singing the title song and a woman surrounded by late Eisenhower-era furniture who floats, tilted, above the crowd.
Luca Bigazzi’s majestic lensing is suitably less flashy than his previous work with Sorrentino, though equally elegant. Cristiano Travaglioli’s editing doesn’t take the breath away as it did in “Il Divo,” but almost as impressively matches the characters and pacing in both Ireland and the U.S. Byrne fans will rejoice thanks to terrific music (often paired with Will Oldham’s lyrics) that’s gently inserted and then fades at the right moment, enhancing without guiding mood.