This Must Be The Place (Paolo Sorrentino, 2011)

29Oct11

Sean Penn (Cheyenne), Frances McDormand (Jane). Screenplay by Umberto Contarello and Paolo Sorrentino. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Running time: 118 minutes.

In The Times today there’s a piece on Johnny Depp’s new film in which he plays Hunter S. Thompson, and the only thing to take from an otherwise normal, uninspiring interview was the revelation that Depp’s presence in the film liberated the director from the producer’s shackles. They know his name ensures the money comes flowing in, and so a little artistic licence is allowed because they’ve got nothing to lose. Cast a B-lister, though, and the message is clear: we’ll make sure you produce something simple enough that the masses come flocking in to get their kicks.

I did have a reason for beginning with this, but I’ve lost sight of it in the time it’s taken me to write it. Clearly I didn’t want to draw a direct parallel, because despite his prestige Sean Penn isn’t a dollar-magnet a la Depp. Perhaps, however, it seemed relevant because it sheds light on the relationship between actors and directors more generally, and you must wonder if a film like This Must Be The Place, however worthy of our time regardless of Penn’s involvement, does in fact hinge on his presence for the sake of PR and promotion. I know I wouldn’t have seen it were it not for him, and their knowing that’s the case is probably the reason that once he was on board here, the film got a $30m budget.

For the film is, despite bearing a well-known face (albeit a drastically altered one) in no way conventional. (There’s another Depp connection – no doubt Tim Burton’s quirky films wouldn’t reach the audience they do were it not for the pulling power of his lead actor). What we have here is an attempt at novel cinema utilising tactics that can elsewhere often turn out tedious. Considered on paper there is no way it should work. Fortunately, its weirdness turns out to have the bafflingly successful Juno feel to it, rather than, I don’t know – let’s say the Coens’ overly odd Miller’s Crossing? (Frances McDormand from Fargo plays Cheyenne’s wife, probably explaining my association).

But screw paper; check out the trailer and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a ‘story’ about an ageing retired rock star setting off on an American road trip to find the Nazi guard that tortured his now dead father, but it’s not really interested in that. It’s more like getting to know a hugely original character through a series of alternatingly comedic and dramatic encounters. But! And it’s a huge bloody but – just listen to that damn voice, nevermind the hair and makeup. Penn looks like he’s going for some kind of Manson meets Osbourne mixed look, the difference being the small fact that whilst their sound as well as image is macho, Cheyenne’s voice is whimpier than a schoolgirl’s. He fills this character with an insanely daring conception, and it shouldn’t work. But – the final time, I promise – it somehow does.

It’s pretty immune to analysis, but watch and I have no doubt you’ll understand. We’re given a picture of Dublin and a road trip across the States where everything from the surrounding architecture to peripheral characters just don’t seem like the type of buildings or people you would ever encounter in real life, and certainly not this frequently. But maybe it’s Cheyenne’s influence that ensures they seem stranger than they actually are. He is, after all, in every scene, making moments funny for nonexistent reasons.

And that’s why it’s an uncomfortable feeling. There’s a pingpong scene that had the audience howling – me included – but why? It’s simple and oh so stupid. You’ll be left wondering why you’ve been made go quietly happy. Maybe it’s the music. The soundtrack is the one aspect that is unqualifiedly, supremely good.

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