This Must Be the Place is Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s first English language film and it certainly does not disappoint. A little slow-moving but never dull, this comedy drama is a highly amusing and watchable film, featuring another spot-on performance from method actor Sean Penn.
Penn plays Cheyenne, a washed-up Goth rocker living in his Dublin mansion with Jane, his cheerful and understanding wife of thirty-five years (Frances McDormand). Having given up music twenty years previously due to the suicide of two young fans inspired by his songs, Cheyenne now spends his days shuffling around Dublin, doing the odd bit of shopping, hanging out with teenage fan Mary (played by a gothed-up Eve Hewson, daughter of U2 singer Bono), and avoiding the overtures of local bands who vie for his attention.
Despite his happy marriage and lazy life, Cheyenne is still deeply troubled and is in the throes of a possible mid-life crisis. Everything suddenly changes when his father dies. Cheyenne heads back to New York for the funeral of a man he hasn’t spoken to in thirty years, only to discover that his father had become obsessed with hunting down Aloise Lange, a Nazi war criminal who persecuted him in Auschwitz. Cheyenne takes up the hunt for Lange, embarking on a road trip with a difference to try to discover the last hiding place of the man his father hated so much.
In the weeks leading up to the release of This Must Be the Place, many film fans were surprised and bemused to see Sean Penn (famous for films such as Milk and 21 Grams) popping up in magazines and on posters with a tangled mop of dyed black hair, a powdered face and smudged red lips. Penn does not disappear into this role – it’s still clearly him despite all the slap – but he imbues it with a realism that only an actor of his individualistic intensity could (casting Johnny Depp would have been going too far; casting Gary Oldman wouldn’t have been going far enough).
Penn’s Cheyenne is the spitting image of real life singer Robert Smith, front man for The Cure. He is soft spoken and prone to Michael Jackson-esque giggling, but is never made a figure of fun. While he is childlike and emotionally flawed, he is also thoughtful and caring; essentially, Cheyenne has never truly grown up (and therefore cannot be having a true mid-life crisis). Throughout the film we see him maturing and finally coming to terms with his regrets about his youth, and his new older self.
Although Penn’s is the focal performance of the film, he certainly doesn’t steal the entire show; Frances McDormand is wonderful as his down-to-earth wife Jane, who lives with him in their Dublin mansion while also holding down a job as a fire-fighter. Also worth a mention is Judd Hirsch (you might remember him as Jeff Goldblum’s father in Independence Day) as Mordecai Midler, a professional Nazi Hunter, and a small cameo from Harry Dean Stanton (Alien, Repo Man) as the man who invented suitcases with wheels.
It’s always risky to juxtapose a subject as serious as the Holocaust with anything that even smells like comedy, and This Must Be the Place has already come under a bit of fire from critics who find the combination a little distasteful. However, none of the humour in the film is ever directed at the Holocaust, and what jokes there are remain understated and character-driven, or are purely visual gags; when Cheyenne cheats at table tennis, for example, or when he watches (terrified) as pilots bang faulty equipment to get it working again. The film isn’t really about the Holocaust or Nazi-hunting, rather it is about Cheyenne dealing with his own demons, so it does seem slightly strange to have the Holocaust play such a major role in the workings of the plot – but, overall, the odd combination pays off.
While it may not be to everybody’s taste, This Must Be the Place is an imaginative, witty and uplifting film. It doesn’t top his portrayal of Harvey Milk, but Penn’s performance as Cheyenne will surely be remembered as being among his greatest and most skilfully handled roles. Quirky, funny and dark by turns, This Must Be the Place is worth two hours of anybody’s time.