Funnier on screen than he’s been in any part since permanently stoned surfer dude Jeff Spicoli in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridegmont High, Sean Penn is terrific in the lead role of Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s distinctly offbeat This Must Be the Place, an unexpected charmer of a movie that is consistently quirky, often laugh-out loud funny and sometimes surprisingly poignant too.
Penn here plays retired Goth-rock star Cheyenne (think The Cure’s Robert Smith), a frazzled man-child whose look and manner – head-to-toe black, rat’s nest hair, eyeliner, red lipstick and a nervous high-pitched giggle of a voice – indicates that he hasn’t moved on from his 1980s heyday when he withdrew from the limelight after his gloomy songs inspired the suicides of two teenage fans.
Since then he’s been living an aimless existence in the Dublin mansion he shares with devoted wife Jane (a puckish Frances McDormand), playing games of bare-hand pelote in his empty swimming pool, checking the progress of his Tesco shares, and shuffling back and forth to the local shopping centre, where he hangs out with young fan Mary (Eve Hewson, Bono’s daughter).
Then comes the news that his estranged, devoutly Jewish father is seriously ill in America, which spurs him to cross the Atlantic – by cruise liner; he has a fear of flying – and return home for the first time in decades. And it’s at his parent’s deathbed that he discovers a goal that will give new momentum to his hitherto purposeless existence – to track down and confront the fugitive Auschwitz guard who once persecuted his father.
Goaded by Judd Hirsch’s lifelong Nazi hunter, Cheyenne embarks on his quixotic enterprise, crossing the US by car (black, of course) in search of his quarry. The notion of a middle-aged Goth in Middle America produces a stream of great sight gags and off-kilter encounters, including a diner conversation with Harry Dean Stanton’s retired pilot, who reveals he is the one who came up with the idea of putting wheels on suitcases. But there are touching moments too, notably Cheyenne’s brush with Kerry Condon’s war-widow waitress and her tubby son, and his quest’s climactic episode is powerfully affecting.
Tackling the Holocaust in a comedy is an extremely risky enterprise (just think of the wildly divided reaction to Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful) and not everyone will warm to the bizarre conceit of a Goth rocker turned Nazi hunter. For me, though, Sorrentino somehow pulls it off. I’ve admired his previous films, including his surreal biopic of Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, Il Divo, but I never imagined he would be so confident and daring with his first English-language film.
Here he’s aided by Penn’s remarkable performance, by his own dazzling visual panache, and by an inspired choice of music. David Byrne provides some original songs, co-written with Will Oldham, and gives an electrifying live performance on screen of the Talking Heads song that gives the film its title. No less striking, though, is the rendition the same number gets later on in the film, accompanied by Cheyenne on guitar and sung with touching innocence by the waitress’s chubby son.
Movie Talk star rating:
On general release from Friday 6th April.
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