Sean Penn is something of a marvel as an actor; not only are the roles he has played throughout his career incredibly diverse and astoundingly difficult, but he nails them (most of the time) with what seems to be consummate ease. His latest role is no different…
Cheyenne is a retired rock star (whose songs were so depressing that two young boys actually committed suicide as a result of listening to them), living in a mansion (in Dublin) with his fire-fighter wife, and verging on what could be called a mid-life crisis. But that would be to do an injustice to the depth of Cheyenne’s instability; there must be a reason that he wanders through his life clinging to his dirty, disheveled mop of black hair, his red lipstick, his cheap, grim clothes, his painted nails and his dark glasses. He looks like something out of a low-budget horror flick from the 70s; indeed, on a visit to the supermarket, he scares the life out of two unfeeling young women just by turning the corner of the aisle.
His wife is very loving and accepting, but perhaps she doesn’t fully realise just how lost and emotionally insecure Cheyenne is. She strikes a note, though, when she says that perhaps he is confusing depression with boredom. Cheyenne does nothing, because he has nothing to do. The first half of the movie (undoubtedly the better half) concerns itself with the people that Cheyenne cares about; his daughter-in-spirit Mary and her depressed mother, forever waiting by the open window to see if her son, who has recently run away, will ever return home; a chauvinistic slob who passes off as one of Cheyenne’s only friends, and a cute waiter who has a crush on Mary are two other characters that wander in and out of his uneventful life.
This section is where the movie works. It is quirky, fresh, reasonably original and very funny. But then the film takes a massive wrong turn, and despite a genuinely moving section later on that involves a young waitress, her chubby son and Cheyenne, it cannot and does not recover. I don’t feel bad about giving away what this turn in the plot is as in every synopsis you are going to read for this movie, it will most likely be revealed to you in the first line. Cheyenne’s estranged father dies of old age, and Cheyenne is left with his dad’s fruitless search for the Nazi who humiliated him in Auschwitz during the Second World War.
Maybe this is just me jumping on my high moral horse, but I have a firm conviction that if you are going to explore a theme like the Holocaust, the least you have to do justice to is the depth, pain and injustice of it. A theme like that must be tackled seriously and with consideration, and not with the ignorant, insulting flippancy with which it is treated here. It has no place in this movie; I cannot begin to think what possessed Sorrentino to go down that road so blindly. There are brief episodes within this last section, which have nothing to do with this search for the Nazi killer, that seem to return to the true spirit of the movie, and which are genuinely amusing – they provide glimpses of the bittersweet road movie/journey of self-discovery that the movie should have been. But if there were ever any doubts in my mind as to how far wrong this film could go while I was sitting in the cinema watching it, its climax dispelled them. The final meeting between Cheyenne and the man who worked in the concentration camp is horrible, offensive and dreadfully misguided.
It is a great shame, because I really enjoyed the first half of This Must Be The Place. I thought (and still think) it had great potential. Even with its damaging plot developments, there are still things to admire here – most notably, the outstanding Sean Penn performance and the beautiful cinematography. But I wanted to know more about Cheyenne’s wife and their relationship, and to see how the relationships between Cheyenne and Mary, Mary and the waiter, and Mary and her mother developed, instead of having to endure Sorrentino’s disastrous substitute for all of that. Not only does this film leave the viewer with unanswered questions as the final credits begin to roll, but also with a smack of artificiality that the movie’s final montage provides, and a really uncomfortable, unwholesome feeling of being cheated. All in all, I consider this to be a disappointing effort from the director of The Consequences of Love and Il Divo. Let’s hope for better things with his next project.
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (April ’12)