Despite being a huge fan of the gifted Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, I have to admit I approached This Must Be The Place with extreme caution, and even after viewing this unconventional film twice, I have to be honest – it is not a movie I would unreservedly recommend. I don’t even know if I can say it’s actually a good film. Yet, while I was anticipating something faintly horrible – a real Sundance-fest of grating, overt quirkiness with a lead performance of near Olympian irritation – I instead found an enormously good natured, beautifully photographed, oddly moving and sometimes very funny film that disarmed and charmed me in equal measure.
This is an enormously indulgent work, far less controlled and precise than The Family Friend, Il Divo or – Sorrentino’s best thus far – The Consequences of Love. It’s pleasures (and there are many) will perhaps be most cherished by an audience receptive to the kind of flaky paeans to ‘80s Americana offered by directors like David Lynch, Jonathan Demme and Wim Wenders. Fans of Paris Texas and True Stories will find much that tickles their fancy here, and there are some definite nods to Lynch’s The Straight Story (including a lovely, unexpected cameo from Harry Dean Stanton).
A near-unrecognisable Penn is Cheyenne, an isolated Goth rocker who had a couple of monster hits in the ‘80s before giving up the game entirely. Married to fellow kook and fire-fighter Jane (Frances McDormand) and living in a massive, sprawling house in Dublin, Cheyenne has trouble on his mind. His best friend is a disaffected teenage girl, Mary (Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson), whose brother has disappeared. He remains haunted by the fact that two teenagers topped themselves listening to his million selling hits of ennui back in the day. Cheyenne is a cartoon-like figure who is jolted into reality when he learns of the death of his estranged father. The old man had spent the last years of his life trying to track down this Nazi persecutor from Auschwitz and Cheyenne, a boy-man who has spent the last twenty years doing almost nothing, becomes slowly compelled to track this shadowy figure down – enlisting the services of a professional Nazi hunter (played by Judd Hirsch).
Anyone familiar with Sorrentino’s work will know that he is a unique talent with a taste for mordant, deadpan comedy. This though is the first of his films that could be viewed for the most part as an outright comedy (although it takes a very strange and not entirely convincing turn at the very end.) In typically perverse fashion, Sorrentino has cast an actor not exactly renowned for having any discernible sense of humour. Aside from his early hilarious turn in n Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Penn (a remarkable actor with an occasional tendency toward mugging) has rarely shown much gift for comedic timing (as anyone who suffered through his charmless turns in Shanghai Surprise and We’re No Angels will testify). However, as a fifty something Goth rock star recluse equal parts Edward Scissorhands, Robert Smith and Elizabeth Taylor, he is a genuine hoot – uttering deadpan bon mots in a ghostly, Michael Jackson whisper and shuffling around his local supermarket picking up bargain pizzas and cartons of juice to guzzle.
There is a lot about this film that doesn’t quite work. I didn’t care for the struggling rocker who shows up at Cheyenne’s pad asking him to produce his album, or even particularly for the subplot about Eve’s missing brother and a near catatonic mother smoking herself into oblivion while waiting for his return. But these and other story strands are part of this films’ odd patchwork quilt style narrative. Some strands are left unfinished, and that is all part of the ragged charm. There is so much to enjoy and indulge in if you allow the films odd, hypnotic rhythms to take you over. And this is a film of rhythms, of a particularly off-kilter kind. It’s like a particularly lengthy, funky 12” remix of a great pop song, taking strange detours throughout its running time. Unsurprisingly for a film named after a Talking Heads song (and with a great cameo from David Byrne) this is a real music lover’s film.
A welcome and entirely unexpected detour from a vital director who thrives on surprise, This Must Be The Place has a looseness about its structure and pacing, which keeps things amusing when they could easily become either facile or overblown. I was surprised by the constant referencing of Arvo Part’s Alina throughout which, though beautiful, seems rather jarring. But this is an original film that wears its influences very well, fashioning a sound of its own while echoing some of the great road movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s. I was a little disappointed though, that amongst the films many cover versions of the great Talking Heads song that gives the film its title, there was no room for singer Shawn Colvin’s crystal clear, beautifully rendered, but ultimately rather conventional cover. Perhaps for Sorrentino that was considered too straight for this story.