His bags are packed

A sur­pris­ingly touch­ing and low-key per­for­mance from the of­ten bom­bas­tic Sean Penn an­chors this odd, some­times way­ward drama, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

OVER THE PAST few decades, Sean Penn has es­tab­lished an un­wanted rep­u­ta­tion as a scenery chewer. But, with his cau­tious, Os­car-win­ning turn in Milk and now, a poignant per­for­mance in this proudly weird film from Paolo Sor­rentino, our Sean ap­pears to be back on the right track. To bor­row a con­struc­tion of­ten used glibly on pro­mo­tional ma­te­rial, this is Sean Penn as you’ve never seen him.

The in­tense pro­fes­sional plays Cheyenne, an Amer­i­can gloom rocker who, hav­ing seen his mu­sic drive a few young peo­ple to sui­cide, now lives in guilty re­tire­ment with his long-suf­fer­ing

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wife (Frances Mcdor­mand) in an elab­o­rate Dublin man­sion. Some af­ter­noons, Cheyenne watches Jamie Oliver on the telly. When feel­ing more en­er­getic, he plays sweaty hand­ball in an empty swim­ming pool.

Cheyenne’s life even­tu­ally gets shaken up when, af­ter at­tend­ing his Jewish fa­ther’s fu­neral in New York, he de­cides to track down the an­cient Nazi who tor­mented the late par­ent in a con­cen­tra­tion camp. The picture then de­vel­ops into a class of loose-limbed road movie.

The scenes in Dublin make in­ge­nious use of dis­tinc­tive land­marks, old and new. The Aviva Sta­dium, filmed when still fresh from its box, looms im­pos­ingly over the ac­tion in sev­eral scenes. Sor­rentino places Cheyenne in a bub­ble, but al­lows hints of lo­cal colour to leak through odd cracks.

Eve Hew­son, daugh­ter of Bono, of­fers a nice turn as a young fan who, trau­ma­tised when her brother goes miss­ing and her mother turns cata­tonic, man­ages to make friends with the frag­ile star. One senses that Cheyenne is long­ing to reach out, but is re­luc­tantly re­strained by the in­fan­talis­ing side ef­fects of rock star­dom.

The first half of This Must Be the Place bears favourable com­par­i­son with ear­lier Sor­rentino gems Il Divo and The Fam­ily Friend. There is the same un­set­tling ten­sion be­tween ab­sur­dity and ev­ery­day re­al­ity. The di­rec­tor takes this semi-dublin and fash­ions it into a tightly con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment that abides by the un­fath­omable rules of the Sor­rentino uni­verse.

Sadly, the film loses its way some­what when Cheyenne lands in the US. The road movie has al­ways been a shape­less beast, so we should not be sur­prised that a pi­caresque tone takes over. And Sor­rentino cer­tainly nudges Cheyenne to­wards some in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tions. Harry Dean Stan­ton (in a nod to Paris, Texas, per­haps) turns up as the man who patented wheels on suit­cases. Re­li­ably charis­matic Judd Hirsch plays a Nazi hunter. David Byrne is on hand to sing the song that gave the film its ti­tle.

The viewer is never short of di­ver­sions. It’s hard to shake the sense, how­ever, that the di­rec­tor loses con­trol when – like his pro­tag­o­nist – he ven­tures out­side the or­dered Dublin com­pound. The ad­ven­ture is a good thing for Cheyenne. He gains a de­gree of per­spec­tive. He gains the courage to em­brace adult­hood. But it’s not an en­tirely good thing for the film. One rather longs to slip back within the dome.

That noted, it is hard to fault the film’s ef­forts at char­ac­ter study. With his hair teased into a Goth bush, speak­ing in a voice that sounds like a cross be­tween Michael Jack­son and Andy Warhol, Cheyenne could eas­ily have been pre­sented as a fig­ure of fun. There are cer­tainly jokes at his ex­pense. But Penn man­ages to make some­thing fleshy and con­flicted from this un­likely ma­te­rial. This is a de­cent man – an or­di­nary man, even – pro­pelled into ec­cen­tric­ity by the un­happy pres­sures of fame.

What a sur­pris­ing turn this is. Penn can, too of­ten, im­pose Wag­ne­r­ian lev­els of melo­drama on the most or­di­nary char­ac­ters. In con­trast, when of­fered a gen­uinely bizarre char­ac­ter, he de­liv­ers a per­for­mance that rev­els in well­judged un­der­state­ment.

This Must Be the Place doesn’t al­ways live up to that cen­tral per­for­mance. But its sin­gu­lar, pas­sive-ag­gres­sive nut­ti­ness re­mains di­vert­ing through­out. One of a kind.

Ac­ci­den­tal trav­eller: Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place

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