The initial first glimpses for "This Must Be the Place" promised disaster, with a pitch of Sean Penn playing a burned-out post-punk rocker on the hunt for Nazis, and advance photos where Penn's jet-black corona of hair and dour made-up jowls made him look less like someone who had imitated The Cure's Robert Smith and more like someone who had killed, skinned and eaten Smith before donning his coiffure and face in celebration.
And that level of preliminary expectation-lowering was confounding; this was the follow-up from Paolo Sorrentino after the acclaimed political epic "Il Divo," which was nominated for the Palme d'Or and earned Sorrentino a Jury Prize at Cannes in 2008. It seemed like the kind of directorial hubris that would be a prelude to both wonderment and bewilderment -- like a cartoon car crash, or the mass demolition of a model train set, where no one is actually hurt but the destruction and chaos still results in a mix of smiles and winces.
It is somewhat sad to report, then, that Sorrentino's film is not nearly as bad as one might fear, or, alternately, one might hope. A rambling, ragged road-trip shaggy dog story, it starts with Penn's aging rocker Cheyenne puttering about his country estate in Ireland -- dazed and confused, going down to the market to shop and blurting out sentence fragments like "Why is Lady Gaga?" Cheyenne is supported by his loving and patient wife of 35 years (Frances McDormand, plucky and implausible) and friends with the gothically styled Mary (Eve Hewson).
Called home by tragedy, Cheyenne sets out to locate the Nazi officer who tormented his father in a World War II concentration camp -- despite lacking any skills, training or resources beyond a pick-up truck he's been tasked with driving from New York to Texas by the scene-stealing (and convenient) Shea Whigham. So Cheyenne begins his journey, pausing for pep-talks from Nazi Hunter Judd Hirsch or rocker David Byrne or a chance encounter in a Utah diner with a man who claims to have invented the wheeled suitcase -- who is, of course, played by Harry Dean Stanton.
Stanton is the tip-off for discerning cinephiles -- "This Must Be the Place" is clearly a tribute to the similar map-meandering road trip films of Wim Wenders, but instead of the distillation of a tribute, the end result is more of a watering-down. Sorrentino gets to shove the camera out the window when he has to -- those amber waves of grain sure do help fill time -- but as the single-joke in Penn's performance wears thin (Guy Lodge, critic for InContention noted hilariously that Penn was playing Ozzy Osborne and Sharon Osborne both, which is funny solely because it's true), we're trapped on a journey with fairly tiresome company.
Anyone who appreciates a good disaster will be sad to note that the film is not, in fact, about Penn's aging rocker hunting Nazis plural, but rather Nazi singular -- the former sounds like a pretty cool '70s era ABC network Aaron Spelling show, while the latter lacks the sort of disastrophe deliciousness that was shown to Cannes audiences in, say, 2008's "The Palermo Shooting," Wim Wenders' last Cannes film, which offered nothing less than ex-model Campino as a brooding paparazzi and Dennis Hopper as the personification of death, pontificating on how film is better than digital.
There are laughs in "This Must Be the Place," purely intentional ones, and they're minor but appreciated. Penn's performance is fairly needlessly showy -- and refuted by the film's final reveal -- and the slow, stately pace feels dawdling, especially compared to the energy and excitement of "Il Divo." But the film can't help but feel like three movies in one -- one about the regrets and present circumstances of a once-raging rocker, another about a grieving son travelling across America and a final one about the long-terms effects of the Holocaust (although, at this point, they're very long term -- as one character notes, Penn's father's tormentor would be about 95 by now). And none of the three movies works especially well with the other two, and none of the three is especially notable on its own. Sorrentino's very title suggests someone who doesn't have the most well-defined sense of where they ultimately want to wind up; as goes the Talking Heads song, so goes the movie. [C-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.