Review: 'This Must Be The Place' makes 'I Am Sam' look like 'Dead Man Walking'
Just so we're clear, I have enormous respect for Sean Penn.
I've been a fan since the early days of "Taps" and "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" and "Bad Boys," and watching the choices he's made over the years, both in front of the camera and occasionally behind it as well, I've remained impressed by his talent.
Like many truly gifted people, though, he is capable of spectacular flame outs when they push themselves, and Penn has had his share of terrible moments onscreen. He's been let down by directors sometimes, but he's also made some big crazy choices that haven't paid off in the end, and I think it's only when you are capable of greatness that you are also capable of doing something almost unspeakably bad.
I am still wrestling with "This Must Be The Place," a new film he stars in for director Paolo Sorrentino, because it is a narrative disaster, but a fascinating disaster. The movie's so bad in so many ways, and yet I was riveted by the display I saw unfolding. This is the sort of bad movie that is almost a textbook study. I want to spend time with it and try to really pull apart how many things just plain misfire, starting with the core concept of the picture.
I would love to know how Umberto Contarello and Sorrentino wrote this picture and what motivated them in the first place. Penn stars as Cheyenne, a former pop star who visually evokes Robert Smith from The Cure. As the film opens, it's been 20 years since Cheyenne has performed live, and he spends his days adrift in the luxurious house he's built in Dublin. He lives with his wife, Jane, who not only indulges his eccentric lifestyle but seems to actively enjoy it. The first forty minutes or so, "This Must Be The Place" is a low-key absurdist comedy almost, as we watch Cheyenne move through the world in his make-up and his ridiculous wardrobe. Look, here's Cheyenne at the grocery store. Look, here he is at the mall. Look, he's playing handball. And while it doesn't really work as sequential narrative, there are a few moments here and there that had me laughing, and intentionally so.
But when Cheyenne gets a call to come home to the US to see his dying father, the film takes an abrupt narrative shift. When he does finally get there, his dad is dead, and we see a Holocaust survivor's tattoo on his wrist. Cheyenne gets caught up in a search for the Nazi who tormented his father at Auschwitz, hitting the road across America with the help of Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch), a famous Nazi hunter. Watching how they try to marry absurdist surrealism with Holocaust imagery, a hunt for a former Nazi, and a road trip movie, you start to suspect that Sorrentino had a breakdown of some sort. Nothing else explains this bizarre convergence of ideas.
I genuinely hate the film "I Am Sam," which of course won Sean Penn an Oscar nomination, but I would watch that movie on loop for 48 hours straight before I'd genuinely sit back down for a second viewing of "This Must Be The Place." All I can figure is that there was a very different film originally planned and that this just plain got away from Sorrentino as he was making it. If he had just kept Cheyenne in Dublin, it would have still been a very strange narrative exercise, but it would have been more consistent. I get creeped out by the way this movie keeps using iconography from the Holocaust in service of… what? I'm not even sure after sitting through the whole thing.
The sprawling supporting cast is wasted, there are bizarre digressions like a meeting with David Byrne that goes nowhere, and Penn's character arc is profoundly phony. There are narrative threads that go nowhere, forgotten completely as the film wears on, and the narrative that the film does try to lay out is so wildly uneven that I almost felt like I'd fallen asleep and woken up in another screening.
I'll say this in the film's favor: I have seen bad movies that are simply boring, and "This Must Be The Place" is never that. A part of me almost wants to see a weekly series about Cheyenne traveling the country hunting Nazis with Judd Hirsch. It would be awful, but it would be gloriously awful, as this movie is. If you feel up to the challenge, there are few more deliriously rancid experiences you'll have in a theater this year.
The Weinstein Company will release "This Must Be The Place" in the US in March. You have been warned.