*** (out of four)
Fifty-year-old former rock star Cheyenne (Sean Penn) still dresses like The Cure’s Robert Smith and can’t tell if he’s bored or depressed with his mundane life in Ireland with wife Jane (Frances McDormand). His activities include regular conversations over bad coffee with Mary (Eve Hewson, Bono’s daughter) and losing to Jane in a handball game they play in their waterless pool, because it’s more fun than swimming. As far as personal or global history, Cheyenne knows about both the Holocaust and the father he hasn’t seen in 30 years “in a general sort of way.”
So discovering that his recently deceased father spent much of his life attempting to hunt down the Nazi war criminal who persecuted him in Auschwitz creates a sudden quest for Cheyenne: He goes back on tour, except this time he’s not performing or part of a group. He’s traversing the U.S. solo, hoping to complete the mission of vengeance his dad never could.
Is this all bold or just questionable? “This Must Be the Place” frequently switches back and forth between an original, offbeat exploration of guilt and a mellower, slowed-down blend of Wes Anderson/Coen brothers sensibilities. The Coens would love Mordecai (Judd Hirsch), a so-called legend at flushing out Nazi war criminals. Anderson would recognize writer-director Paolo Sorrentino’s fondness for picturesque framing, and Cheyenne’s unique outsider perspective, perfectly encapsulated by Penn. (Hypothetically, it’d be a good fit for Bill Murray as well.)
Immensely entertaining and occasionally very moving (particularly in Cheyenne’s scenes with Rachel [Kerry Condon], a waitress and single mother in New Mexico), the movie offers several priceless moments. They range from Cheyenne advising an elevator full of women on lipstick to the ex-rocker, after Jane tells him MTV wants him to do an appearance, asking “Why is Lady Gaga …,” trailing off as if to question if someone more current isn’t available. Or maybe he's just asking generally, “Why is Lady Gaga?” something everyone should ask themselves eventually.
That bizarre examination fits into a weird, affecting film that could tone down the quirk but hits the issue of self-worth right on the head. Cheyenne can’t believe his friend, Jeffery (Simon Delaney), does so well with women; Jeffery insists it’s all about curiosity and time. In reality, he doesn’t ask “Why me?” or even “Why not me?” He dares to go with it and hopes for the best.
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