Review originally published January 25, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
The tricky thing about reviewing "This Must Be the Place" is that every description of it makes it sound much more entertaining than it is. It stars Sean Penn as an aging Goth rocker named Cheyenne -- think Robert Smith from The Cure -- who goes searching for the Nazi war criminal who eluded his Holocaust-survivor father. Most people only get as far as "Sean Penn plays a Goth rocker" before deciding they are definitely going to see this movie.
Unfortunately, the strange premise and inspired casting are wasted on a stale, tiresome mess of a movie. After scoring with his acclaimed 2008 political biopic "Il Divo," Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino has let his artistic tendencies evolve into baffling, self-indulgent weirdness. How can a movie about a Nazi-hunting retired Goth rocker played by Sean Penn be boring?? Sorrentino has done the impossible.
Cheyenne, a big star in the 1980s, is retired now, living on a vast green estate in Dublin with his wife, Jane (Frances McDormand), who is a firefighter. Cheyenne spends his days hanging out with a 20-ish girl named Mary (Eve Hewson) and still dresses in the costumery of his heyday -- black clothes, makeup, a lot of jewelry -- but his reading glasses and middle-age paunch serve as reminders that his youth is gone. He speaks slowly and softly in a high-pitched whine that must surely grate on the nerves of anyone who converses with him for longer than a minute. When he is amused, he laughs in a whimpery giggle. Someone could probably make a documentary just about the conversations Penn and Sorrentino must have had that led to this performance.
Cheyenne is haunted by the fact that two teenagers committed suicide many years ago, apparently influenced by one of his gloomy songs. Bored and depressed, he's without purpose in his life until his estranged father dies, whereupon Cheyenne takes it upon himself to continue the old man's mission of finding the Nazi officer who tormented him during the war. Soon Cheyenne is driving around the American Southwest, having odd interactions with locals as he searches for the elusive German.
Please do not get the impression that there is anything like a "point" to any of this, or that the story resolves into something satisfying or comprehensible. On the contrary, Sorrentino's two-hour reverie (which he cowrote with Umberto Contarello) is only fitfully entertaining, and that's mostly in the first half. Once Cheyenne heads to America, we've realized that Sorrentino's intensely quirky and surreal touch is just for show, without meaning or humor. And then it's just tedious.
The story is filled with weird interludes like Cheyenne playing ping-pong against teenagers in a diner, or helping a boy court Mary's affections. Jane's dog has a cone around its neck; Cheyenne doesn't know why. Their swimming pool is empty so they can play handball in it. Cheyenne is afraid to fly. The list of bemusing details goes on and on. But Sorrentino never does anything with them! His undeniable talents for constructing visually arresting images and shooting things in an unconventional way are squandered on a pointless, meandering narrative led by an off-putting protagonist. As Cheyenne puts it on more than one occasion, "Something's not quite right here." Yeah, I'll say.