Has its moments, but loses its place too often

Cheyenne (Penn) is a retired, middle-aged rock musician, whose appearance is clearly modelled on Robert Smith. He floats about his giant Dublin residence and the local shopping centre like a ghost searching for purpose. He exists on the royalties from a successful recording career that spanned several decades and although he hasn’t performed in over ten years, he still wears his trademark lipstick, eyeliner and backcombed hair-do.

Despite an idyllic marriage to a local firefighter (McDormand), Cheyenne is tortured by the suicides of two local fans who were inspired by his songs to take their own lives. He is locked in a permanant state of creative and emotional stagnation until he receives word of his father’s death.

Having not spoken to his father in over 30 years, he promptly returns to his birthplace of New York. There he learns of his father’s life quest: to track down a Nazi officer from the concentration camp where he was imprisoned. In his father’s death, Cheyenne’s life finds purpose – he picks up the trail where his father left off.

The film is of fine pedigree, boasting two of the world’s finest actors in Sean Penn and Frances McDormand; a soundtrack from the legendary David Byrne (who also puts in a guest appearance – and provides the film’s title, which is taken from a Talking Heads track); and the director of Il Divo who is widely considered to be primed for ‘modern master’ status. But yet, to quote the film’s protagonist, “Something is very wrong here”. It’s difficult to locate the poison responsible for these uneasy feelings, not least because there’s much to recommend the film: Penn and McDormand play wonderfully together, depicting a touching relationship of perfect harmony; Cheyenne himself is a charming character who, despite being nauseatingly soft-spoken and frustratingly slow-moving, commands our sympathies.

Comprised of two distinctly separate halves, Ireland has moments of jaunty visual comedy punctuated by sobering melancholy. Once Cheyenne arrives in the States, the tone becomes decidedly less silly and more earnest. The contrast is jarring – Ireland presents us with the wacky sight of ageing rock star Penn, comedically howling his way through a racquetball game and giggling at his wife’s tai chi session, but once Stateside we’re looking at a slideshow of atrocities committed at concentration camps.

There’s a sense that these subjects belong to different genres, that perhaps the filmmaker is not fully engaging with the emotional gravity of these disparate elements in his film. Yes, they form a (almost) coherent whole that is both entertaining and at least superficially engaging, but the problem lies not just in these narrative elements making awkward bedfellows, but also in the lack of sincerity within the elements themselves. For example, we never get a sense of Cheyenne the musician. In a faintly embarrassing scene with David Byrne (playing himself), Cheyenne praises Byrne as a true artist and dismisses his own discography as “depressed pop for depressed kids, made solely for the money”. That’s all we get.

In fact, it frequently feels as though the filmmaker is betraying his central character – that in fact we are being served a sneakily conservative perspective on society’s non-conformists and that such behaviour as Cheyenne’s is something one should ultimately grow out of. One suspects Robert Smith would tell Sorrentino where to stick his condescension. Even more disturbing is an attempt to equate Nazi war crimes with the guilt of a rock star. Such narrative conceits make for great aesthetics and even work on a thematic and symbolic level but in reality they cease to function and feel sloppy and insubstantial.

This Must Be The Place (7)
Dir: Paolo Sorrentino; Fra/Ita/Ire dramedy, 2011, 118 mins; Sean Penn, Frances McDormand
Premiered January 12
Playing nationwide

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