This Must Be the Place is not a movie so much as a feature-length opportunity to gaze deeply into the creases of Sean Penn’s face. Penn plays forlorn and aging glam rocker Cheyenne, whose heavily powdered visage fills the screen for so much of the film you fear you might fall into one of its crevices. Which is to Penn’s credit—his portrayal is absorbing. He looks like Edward Scissorhands dressed in drag, and he spends his days wallowing in his Dublin mansion, staring listlessly into space and playing handball with his wife (Frances McDormand) at the bottom of an empty swimming pool. When he speaks, each word sounds like air being slowly released from a balloon, as though his larynx has been pickled by decades of recreational drug use.
The plot, however, is not as well-executed. Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino holds viewers hostage in a prolonged introductory phase of character development, during which he fixates on cultivating vague personality quirks rather than establishing any clear motives or relationships. By the time Cheyenne is summoned to his estranged father’s bedside in New York to say his last goodbyes, all that’s certain is, he is bored with his life and perpetually dragging some sort of rolling grocery cart behind him wherever he goes. Too frightened to fly, he takes a cruise across the pond and arrives too late—his father, an Auschwitz survivor who “didn’t love him,” is already dead. And so, at a loss for better things to do, Cheyenne decides to carry on his father’s mission to track and kill a Nazi war criminal hiding out in the U.S.
Penn on a Nazi manhunt wearing lipstick and a women’s fur-trimmed hoodie ought to be cinematic gold; the ingredients of a kick-ass flick are there. But what isn’t there is structure. Sorrentino lovingly crafts a handful of compelling subplots only to leave their loose ends untied, and he hits bumps in the main plot line as well. A great deal of information from the journal entries of Cheyenne’s father flits by without sufficient time to process, leaving the viewer with a slew of unanswered questions. Though Cheyenne’s dark, comedic escapade through rural America is composed of gorgeous camera work and excellent tunes (many by David Byrne, who makes a great cameo appearance), the plot is ultimately too disjointed to carry the story. R.
Critic’s Grade: B-
SEE IT: This Must Be the Place opens Friday at Fox Tower.