[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 Sundance Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the wider theatrical release of the film.]
While waiting to enter the theater for a Sundance press screening, a critic from another queue shouted that we’re all about to regret how we were about to spend our next two hours. I don’t know anything about this person, but by the end of This Must Be the Place I felt pretty sure that I hated him. Such is the bond that a viewer forms with such a unique piece of cinema.
It’s me, Sean Penn, and two crazy Italian filmmakers against the world.
This Must Be the Place
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Release Date: November 2nd, 2012 (limited)
Pre-judging the film by its synopsis and wonderfully cut trailer, I felt pretty sure that the film was either a slice of genius or a mess that was somehow molded into a nice teaser. Even now that I know the entire plot of the film and my feelings toward it, I have a difficult time explaining it any better than those promotional materials. The film would be better served by explaining its impact on me than its wonderfully bent characters and comedic sense.
The film opens with a slow first act that brings us into the world of Cheyenne, a retired rock star with the muffled speech and gloomy yet elegant attire of Robert Smith and David Lynch’s esoteric qualities that often find himself spouting words of wisdom that surprises even himself. Cheyenne is the heart of the film and what a big heart it is. Sean Penn brings the character to life, living through nuanced mannerism but still managing to maintain the mystery and depth of rock’s all-time greats. His offbeat performance can be compared to Jon Heder in Napoleon Dynamite at times, but there is a heart and wit to Cheyenne that makes him into the warm, quirky androgynous man-mom we all wish we had.
Cheyenne lives in a large Dublin estate with his asexual goth daughter, sporty wife (Frances McDormand) who fights fires for a living when she isn’t beating Cheyenne’s ass at handball, and dog. It’s probably not what Robert Smith’s life is like, but it’s the one we like to imagine in our heads. Less Osbounes, more Addams Family. Cheyenne cares little for the superficial and regrets his days chasing the billboards with his pop band, or so he confesses to David Byrne in the film. And, yes, Byrne plays himself!
How we go from these opening scenes of a picturesque family life to Cheyenne hunting a nazi war criminal in America can not be so easily explained. In many ways, This Must Be a Place recalls The Big Lebowski in the boldness of its artistic vision and characters. Every character has an awe-inspired performance, even when they are only present for a couple minutes of comedic levity. Every scene has its own warped tone that shrouds the viewer in mystery, while keeping the tone lighthearted. The specificity in the dialog, direction, and performances is unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time. This is a singular vision brought to life through wonderful character actors given a wealth of quotable lines (“She left me lonely like the last panda standing.”)
Cheyenne’s character is often played for laughs, but over time we grow to accept this is who he is as a person. As we learn his faults, his regrets, and his history, he suddenly turns into a wonderfully realized character that makes for a memorable guide on this crazy transcontinental nazi hunt. What starts as a quirky adventure turns into a touching meditation on living life and getting along with the ones who love us and never will. The film sneaks in some monologues near the end that hit me harder than anything I saw in 2011. All of them are highlighted through excellent camera work and lighting.
I kept asking myself throughout This Must Be the Place, “Whose mind did this come from?” The humor, mood, and visuals of this film are arresting in their originality. For those who buy into the strange world Italian filmmakers Paolo Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello have built, there are many perplexing scenes and lines that will be discussed after the big moments fade into familiar memories.
This Must Be the Place will be labeled pretentious and dull by some, but it will be championed as an all-time favorite by others. It’s a weird thing that doesn’t happen that often at the cinema these days, but that’s just how great art works.