The issue with "This Must Be the Place," Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino's first English language feature, 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.
An Italy-France-Ireland coproduction, "This Must Be the Place" showcases the curious collaboration of an actor known for showing his soft side and a filmmaker prone to rejecting his own. Sorrentino's 2008 political thriller "Il Divo" was a brilliant black comedy about former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, brought to life with vampirish creepiness by Toni Servillo. At once pathetic and quietly creepy, Servillo's role benefited from Sorrentino's dark, expressionistic style. In "This Must Be the Place," however, Sorrentino has inexplicably crafted a cheery portrait of a fading rock star that's anything but subtle.
Donning a subpar Alice Cooper impression, Penn plays the weary-eyed Cheyenne, a leather-clad middle-aged retiree spending his aimless days in a Dublin mansion. Hidden behind eye shadow and lipstick, his whiny delivery comes across like a John Waters script reject by way of Truman Capote. Early scenes find Cheyenne wandering through life in a daze, staggering through supermall while an eager public snaps photos. His boredom has drained him of a personality. "I'm a tad depressed," he finally tells his unexplainably normal wife, Jane (Frances McDormand). "Maybe you're confusing depression and boredom," she says, which could double as a critique of Penn's performance.
If "This Must Be the Place" has any source of redemption, it solely belongs to David Byrne. The Talking Heads frontman wrote original music for the movie (and Will Oldham wrote the lyrics). Byrne also performs in movie's best scene, which has nothing to do with the story surrounding it save for reminding Penn's character that he has lost his touch. When Cheyenne chats with Byrne after his show, he admires Byrne's magnificent "Playing the Building" installation in lower Manhattan, a real exhibit that featured a gigantic organ hooked up to the Battery Maritime Building. Admiring Byrne's genius, Penn bemoans how he only wrote "depressed songs for depressed children." Since we never hear any of them, his wistfulness draws attention to the flimsiness of the character. In the single scene where Penn actually plays guitar, he also debates with a ten-year-old about whether the Talking Heads or Arcade Fire authored the song in the movie's title. It's the kind of in a one-note sketch that would fit better in a Will Ferrell farce.
Eventually, Cheyenne launches on a soul-searching journey to find the dying Nazi who tortured his recently deceased father in Auschwitz. Guided by an over-the-top Nazi hunter played by Judd Hirsch (clearly enjoying himself), Cheyenne begins a road trip through Middle American that goes nowhere, and Penn's mopey has-been routine starts to feel like a bad joke that just keeps getting worse. Accidentally or not, the script acknowledges as much: "We all play the fool sometimes," Cheyenne says.
After a brief and competent Harry Dean Stanton cameo, Cheyenne receives the tip he seeks, and "This Must Be the Place" careens toward its insipid anti-climax at the former Nazi's home. A few confounding monologues later, the movie ends with a shrug, as if Sorrentino never cared about the project in the first place. His capacity for balancing stylistic indulgences with heavy themes makes the tonal confusion especially troublesome. It's easy to imagine that the Sorrentino behind "Il Divo" and his acclaimed thriller "The Consequences of Love" doing something savvier with this material on his home turf. Instead, "This Must Be the Place" feels the product of a director wandering the wilderness, looking even more stunned than a makeup-clad Penn.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Reviews are sure to tarnish any major commercial prospects, although it might do reasonable business in limited release if a distributor can capitalize on Penn's star power and Sorrentino's art house cred.
criticWIRE grade: D+