With This Must Be The Place, Paolo Sorrentino joins the gang of European auteurs, from Michelangelo Antonioni to Wim Wenders, who have followed success at home with a road trip to America. For the 40-year-old Italian director, it’s a bumpy ride of stalls and diversions. He begins with a promising deadpan comic portrait of Cheyenne (Sean Penn), an American rocker in exile in Ireland, but images and ideas increasingly part company when the film travels to America and falls in thrall to hackneyed cinematic visions of the country and a perspective on the legacy of the Holocaust that feels awkward. This Must Be The Place is wry and sometimes affecting, but it has a sluggish momentum compared to the Fellini-esque, cutting musical carnival of Sorrentino’s terrific last film, Il Divo.
Cheyenne hasn’t touched a guitar in years and hides behind a bush of black hair and a mask of make-up. He lives in a Dublin mansion with his wife Jane (Frances McDormand) and exists in a permanent state of amiable depression. He hangs out with unlikely local friends – a young Goth woman, a boorish office worker – and reacts with innocent confusion at the modern world. He stares blankly while Jamie Oliver does something unfunny with carrots on TV. He watches television and gnomically asks in his slow, slurring, weirdly high voice: ‘Why is Lady Gaga?’ The script gives him some great eccentric lines. ‘Rock stars shouldn’t have kids,’ he tells a friend without smiling. ‘Otherwise you run the risk that your daughter becomes a wacky stylist.’The impending death of Cheyenne’s estranged father takes him back – via boat, he’s to scared to fly – to the suburbs of New York, where he discovers that his Jewish father failed at his life’s mission to discover the Nazi guard who robbed him of his childhood innocence in Auschwitz. With a new purpose, Cheyenne bypasses a famous Nazi hunter (Judd Hirsch) and travels from state to state in search of this elderly man, meeting along the way a single-mother waitress, a retired teacher and others who help his search not only for the ageing Nazi but also for a new happiness in life. Before Cheyenne leaves New York, he goes to see David Byrne play live (which recalls the scene with The Yardbirds in Blow-Up – maybe because Sorrentino’s more architectural visions generally bring Antonioni to mind) and later he empties his heart to Byrne about how much of a failed, unhappy person he feels he’s become. It’s a Talking Heads song, of course, that gives the film its name, and Byrne and Will Oldham also collaborate on the film’s soundtrack. Sorrentino’s films can be visual delights, and there are some lovely unspoken ironies in the film, especially earlier on. But much of the look of This Must Be The Place, feels mannered without reason. Too often we’re left with a carefully framed shot or travelling camera (he loves cranes and tracks) in search of an idea. The same can be said of the film’s Nazi-hunter storyline – it feels like more of an excuse to get Cheyenne out on the road and talking to people rather than something that Sorrentino explores with any real vigour or passion. It’s an idea in search of a film. By the time that this element of Cheyenne’s journey reaches it climax, it just feels odd, and even this scene is dominated by a wide shot of a flat, snowy vista rather than anything more substantial.
It’s always a curious and imaginative film. Penn is fun to watch and Sorrentino is a bold storyteller, unafraid of diversions in story and tone – Harry Dean Stanton has a great cameo in one scene as a guy who claims to have invented the suitcase with wheels. But the momentum of the film stops and starts and you feel you know less, not more, about Cheyenne as time goes on and his behaviour becomes less convincing. The film is never better than its opening scenes in Dublin and you’re finally left with the uncomfortable feeling that Sorrentino’s eccentric story and daring visual style masks just another movie about the healing powers of hitting the road.