David Byrne’s lyrics to the song “This Must Be the Place,” from which Paolo Sorrentino’s new film borrows its title, probably sums up my feelings watching the movie better than I can. “I feel numb – burn with a weak heart/I guess I must be having fun/the less we say about it the better/make it up as we go along… it’s okay. I know nothing’s wrong.”
“This Must Be the Place” is a beguiling film of quirky pleasures, unexpected themes and surprising depths. It’s the story of an aging ‘80s rock star named Cheyenne (Sean Penn) who in a state of depression goes on a road trip across America to hunt down the concentration camp guard who tortured his father. But it’s definitely not about rock ‘n roll, nor about America or Nazis or a lot else. And yet it’s a bizarrely funny movie with muted tones, surreal ingenuity and one of the wackiest performances of Sean Penn’s career.
Bathed in black nail polish, clothes, eyeliner and a mess of hair that outdoes even The Cure’s Robert Smith, Cheyenne is in his own world. He’s got a diminutive gaze of melancholy and depression along with his look that other Goth kids, like the teenager Mary (Eve Hewson) who hangs out with him, can only try and emulate. His lilting voice and occasional giggle is uncharacteristic of a rock star, but it’s the type of voice that people pay attention to when he speaks, like when he silences an elevator full of jabbering women on the subject of lipstick.
And yet the rest of his hometown of Dublin doesn’t seem to mind he’s in his own world. He maintains a healthy sex life with his blue-collar wife (Frances McDormand) and carries on conversations about women and music with others around town who don’t seem to care he is or was a rock star.
Cheyenne however doesn’t do much these days. He hasn’t played music in 20 years and he seems not at home in his strangely pristine and trendy mansion (“Why does it say ‘cuisine’ on the kitchen wall? I know it’s the kitchen”). Even his pool isn’t filled. His wife assures him he’s just confusing boredom with depression, so when he gets news his father has died and learns of his past during the war, he starts his American road trip to hunt down this Nazi war criminal.
Sorrentino, an Italian working in English for the first time, has a skewed view of Americana that’s probably more American than most patriotic films claim to be. These small towns in New Mexico and Utah each have their own rock star quirks, and it’s as if all of their oddities are projected onto Cheyenne and back. He takes a trip to see the world’s largest pistachio, performs “This Must Be the Place” with a 12-year-old, talks with David Byrne himself as he executes his latest project and even meets the man who invented the rolling suitcase (a wonderful cameo by Harry Dean Stanton).
We never see Sean Penn sing, nor do we hear the songs that made him a star, so more time is focused on these minor figures he encounters. But it’s an important distinction, because these numerous caricatures help turn Cheyenne into a real person. It seems as if deep down behind all the makeup, gimmicky vignettes and cinematography that makes every image look like it would be an appropriately bleak album cover, “This Must Be the Place” is a simple coming-of-age story about a rock star he isn’t now and never was.