On paper, “This Must be the Place” is an intriguing proposition: This Italian-French-Irish co-production marks the English-language debut of Neapolitan director Paolo Sorrentino, utilizes eclectic filming locations — including Dublin, New York and New Mexico — and stars two of the finest actors working today — Sean Penn and Frances McDormand. It’s a crushing shame therefore that this cosmopolitan picture is such a muddled disappointment.
Penn is a washed-up Goth rocker, Cheyenne, the worst kind of Ozzy Osbourne/Robert Smith throwback. He lives a dreary, conventional existence, wiling away his retirement with his wife Jane (a criminally underutilized McDormand) in his Dublin mansion. Bored with life, news that his estranged father is dying back home in New York forces him out of his incredibly hollow comfort zone; and he must venture home to say his good-byes.
Leaving behind Jane, his rock and crutch, Cheyenne soon learns that his father had been busy tracking down his Nazi wartime guard, Aloise Lange (Heinz Lieven). Attempting to right previous wrongs, he promises to avenge his father and take up the hunt as he embarks on a bizarre road trip across North America.
Penn lends Cheyenne a degree of vulnerability, his childlike whispers betray a lost soul desperate for belonging. But his affected performance is off kilter, detached and distant; and he almost seems to be struggling at times. Sorrentino, too, tries too hard to lend proceedings a quirky edge. But his attempts fall short; and it all comes across as a little contrived. That said, Sorrentino and co-scribe Umberto Contarello’s script is fresh and funny at times.
Musical interludes long enough for Shazam to come into play disrupt the narrative flow; and there’s a definite sense that the near five-minute scene of David Byrne playing the eponymous title track was shoehorned in as a favor, highlight of the film or not. Regardless, it’s indicative of the fragmentary, disparate and meandering nature of Sorrentino’s picture.
As Cheyenne’s journey continues apace, literally dragging around his metaphorical baggage behind him, he encounters people along the way who force him to reflect on the nature and motive of his own quest. Luca Bigazzi’s beautiful photography ensures his hunt is wistful and meditative, so it’s unfortunate that the denouement is as stark and heartless as it is. Sorrentino badly misjudges things by almost trivializing the issue, effectively insinuating that revenge is a dish best served cold and implying that Cheyenne actually learns very little, which garners him little sympathy.
Ultimately, “This Must Be the Place” is a frustrating experience. Sorrentino evidently has a great visual eye, but his desperation to combine so many different elements into one picture just muddies the waters to such an extent that it comes off as a confused mess. A stilted narrative, the inexcusable wastage of the ever brilliant McDormand and an irritatingly off the boil turn from Penn certainly doesn’t help matters. Somewhere within all this, there’s a great film fighting to get out, unfortunately and despite the promise of the title, this is not the place to find it.