LITTLE ROCK Paolo Sorrentino’s new film, This Must Be the Place, takes its title and some of its quizzical, wide-eyed spirit from a Talking Heads song, the first word of which is “home.” “But I guess I’m already there,” David Byrne sings. It’s a beguiling and puzzling line - wouldn’t you know if you were home? - and one that suits Cheyenne, a retired rock star played with consummate oddness and utter sincerity by Sean Penn.
Cheyenne, an American singer whose big moment was sometime in the ’80s (a decade to which his gravity-defying jet-black hair pays vivid and tireless tribute), lives in Dublin in a modernized castle with his wife, Jane (Frances McDormand), and their dog. Cheyenne and Jane, who’s a firefighter, have an easy, affectionate, sexually lively relationship. Cheyenne has a handful of friends - including a moody Goth girl played by Eve Hewson, whose father is the real life Dublin rock star Bono - but there is nonetheless something out of place about him, an aura of sorrowful estrangement that is not just a matter of appearance.
Dressed all in black, with bright red lipstick, dark eyeliner and a deathly pallor, dragging a shopping cart behind him, Cheyenne looks as if he could be the great-aunt of Edward Scissorhands. His voice - high, whispery and fussily precise - confirms the impression of a post-punk bad boy who grew up into a kooky old lady.
The people of Dublin accept Cheyenne as he is, partly out of awareness of his celebrity and partly out of a general tolerance for eccentricity. For a while This Must Be the Place has a low-key, local comic vibe that recalls the sharp, genial ’80s comedies of the Scottish director Bill Forsyth (like Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero), albeit with the bright colors, flamboyant camera movements and emphatic compositions that are Sorrentino’s hallmarks. But then it turns into something else - or, rather, a bunch of other things, among them a road movie, a Holocaust drama and an epic tale of prodigal sons and vanished fathers.
Up to now Sorrentino has specialized in character studies of specifically Italian dysfunction, in which surrealism becomes a form of verisimilitude in its own right. The Consequences of Love (2004) traced the fate of a seemingly unexceptional, heroin-addicted businessman with Mafia entanglements. Sorrentino’s masterpiece thus far may be Il Divo (2009), a nothing-but warts portrait of Giulio Andreotti, one of the most powerful and enigmatic political figures in postwar Italy. That film was hyperbolic, garishly theatrical and rigorously faithful to the historical record - completely unbelievable and pretty much all true.
This Must Be the Place is a departure for Sorrentino in some obvious ways. It is an English-language movie, for one thing, and one that expresses the kind of fascination with exotic American landscapes that you find in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights, and in Borat. It is also less abrasive than most of Sorrentino’s work. The plot turns are playful as well as jolting,and the visual shocks are gentle: a bison on the porch, the world’s largest pistachio, Penn in his makeup.
Also: Judd Hirsch as a grumpy Nazi hunter and David Byrne, playing himself and graciously receiving passionate, envious tribute from his fictional fellow musician. A phone call summons Cheyenne to New York (by ocean liner, since he is afraid to fly), where his father, an Orthodox Jewish Holocaust survivor, has died. In his diaries the father had recorded his obsession with a German death-camp guard who tormented him, and his son resolves to find the man and take revenge.
It is possible, in hindsight, to smooth this film out into a more conventional version of itself, or to find fault with the tangents and loose ends that it generates along the way. Maybe, beneath the stylistic flourishes and bursts of operatic emotion, it is a simple story of psychological struggle, about a man in midlife reckoning with the damage of his past. But to settle on that interpretation is to deny or discount the splendid strangeness of Sorrentino’s vision - and also, therefore, of the curious corners of reality he discovers along the way.
This Must Be the Place 88
: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, David Byrne, Eve Hewson
: Paolo Sorrentino
: R, for language, some sexual content and brief disturbing images
: 111 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 30 on 11/23/2012
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