But for every Drive or Melancholia--two superb movies directed by English-fluent Danes working with English-speaking casts--you get a This Must Be the Place, a complete misfire. When he was head of the Cannes jury in 2008, Sean Penn was so impressed by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s masterful portrait of seven-time Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, Il Divo, which boasts a tour-de-force performance by Toni Servillo, that he told Sorrentino that he would work with him "any time, any place."
So Sorrentino did what any self-respecting, ambitious director would do when dazzled by the opportunity to work with a major bankable star. Within a year he handed Penn a screenplay with a role challenging and rich enough to lure him. Sorrentino admitted at the press conference in Cannes that if Penn hadn't wanted to do it, the movie wouldn't have gotten made. "The idea of the story comes from a Nazi criminal," he said. "I wanted to write something about a 50-year-old man who remained a child who was a rock star. I wanted to put these two people in the same film and have them confront each other."
When Penn responded to the character Sorrentino came up with, the project was easily financed by Italy and Ireland, and Penn actually made the part of the middle-aged Goth work. "Paolo had very clear ideas of the physicality, the look of the character when he wrote it," said Penn. "It's an unusual kind of pleasure to work with a director like this...one of the very few film masters going on, someone who is going to make original cinema for a long time...he plays piano, I am there to turn the the pages."
But the movie around him is too strange and disparate to be believable. Take an Italian director who does not speak English and an Italian screenplay set in Ireland and America, translated into English, starring American and Irish actors working on sprawling locations, and you have a recipe for disaster. Scenes with actors, even as skilled as Frances McDormand, who plays Penn's loving firefighter wife, and Judd Hirsch as a Nazi hunter, fall flat. And pop star David Byrne, who contributed the score, should have stuck to his guns and resisted being pulled into a terrible dialogue scene. Do check out the title song music video interlude that Byrne performs--it's the best thing in the movie. (Byrne memorably blogs and videotapes his own Cannes experience.)
With so many foreign variables and no handle on the language, it was hard for someone like Sorrentino to gauge what was working and what wasn't. The movie is about the "unrelenting beauty of revenge," but never comes together, as an American road movie section devolves into stereotypical outsider perspectives. Sorrentino had dreamed of shooting a movie in the locations of the Hollywood movies he loved, but when he got there he didn't know what to do with them.
Nicolas Winding Refn, on the other hand, was backed by smart Hollywood producer Marc Platt who gave him and star Ryan Gosling a strong script and support. And Von Trier knows how to work in Denmark with global casts speaking English. Both films will play effectively in America and around the world.
This Must Be the Place, unfortunately, is the sort of movie that will score a U.S. distributor, but only a small one that won't pay much for the privilege. Check out the Cannes review sampling below.
Todd McCarthy, THR:
"Negotiating a consistent artistic path as steadily as a drunk walking a straight line, This Must Be the Place is all over the place dramatically, tonally and thematically…Eccentric, misguided and occasionally charming and sweet, this curiosity item with Sean Penn in one of his nuttier performances is unlikely to be embraced critically or commercially…Penn dominates the film, of course, although it’s a performance that slithers between the genuine and the stunt-like."
Stephanie Zacharek, Movieline:
"a picture so ill-conceived and so bizarrely executed that watching it, I wondered if nine days (and counting) of nonstop movies had finally pitched me right over the edge of sanity?…This Must Be the Place is a bewildering piece of work, a picture that may have initially been guided by a sweet impulse but takes a sharp left turn into crazytown. Whatever you do — don’t go to sleep on that clown."
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian:
"There's an awful lot to enjoy here and yet I couldn't help feeling that, when Cheyenne leaves Ireland to journey into the classic American midwest on a mission to find the fugitive Nazi who tormented his father in the camps, the film becomes derivative and Wim Wenders-ish. And a final twist-reveal gestures at some kind of equivalence between the suffering of Jews and their Nazi captors."
James Rocchi, ThePlaylist:
"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...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."
Eric Kohn, indieWIRE:
"The issue with This Must Be the Place,..has nothing to do with whether it makes light of the Holocaust. That might be a worthy debate if it didn’t face other problems. Chief among them: An uber-campy Sean Penn performance, a gratingly quirky soul-searching plot, and character motives that barely make any sense. It’s far too much of a godawful mess to merit serious moral scrutiny."