You know when a movie ends and you think to yourself, “Wait, what?” That happened to me after I watched This Must Be the Place (2012). I thought I understood basically everything that was going on and then right there, right at the end, I wondered whether I’d missed something. I hadn’t. Instead what happened was a would-be profound ending shoe-horned into a narrative arc that wasn’t really going anywhere. In my mind, a defender of the movie is saying, “But that’s when he realizes [this and that] and the movie’s really about [such and such].” I get it, don’t think I don’t get it. That’s not the problem. Ask yourself this, though. Why does she get it? Right? Right? What’s that? Haven’t got any clue what I’m talking about? You just saw the poster and thought you’d give it a miss. Yeah, that happened with a lot of people.
Color. Cheyenne (Sean Penn) is an old-time rocker who hasn’t grown out of his popular persona—dark, blown-out hair, red lipstick, and black eye-liner accompanied by a breathy, high-pitched voice. He lives in Dublin now with his wife Jane (Frances McDormand) who schools him at handball in their water-less pool. He hangs out with his friend Mary (Eve Hewson), but I think that’s not very relevant. Cheyenne’s father, who he hasn’t seen for thirty years, is dying and he has to come back to the US to see him. Sadly, he’s afraid of flying and after an aborted attempt to fly home, has to take a cruise ship instead and arrives too late. Cheyenne’s father had been seeking his tormentor at Auschwitz and was very near to finding him when he died. Cheyenne takes up this journey to finish his father’s mission. On his way, he meets the Nazi’s wife (Joyce Van Patten), his granddaughter (Kerry Condon), and Nazi-hunter Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch). Oh, and David Byrne.
You and I didn’t see movie when it came out because it looked like it might be funny but would definitely be weird. Well, I’ve now seen it and I can tell you that we were basically right but for all the wrong reasons. We thought it was going to be about Sean Penn making an ass of himself and then entering into this zany quest to find a war criminal and the whole movie would consist entirely of the contrast between Sean Penn looking weird and the very serious matter of the Holocaust. That’s where we made our bloomer. This is more like Everything Is Illuminated (2005) in its foundation and film style than the promotional materials led me to believe. The first, very boring, thirty minutes are certainly about how weird Cheyenne is, but the rest is about why.
Gosh, when I say it like that, it sounds like a really good movie. And it would have been if it wasn’t about how weird Cheyenne is. The why is the good part and the execution of that is the best part. Paolo Sorrentino wrote the screenplay (with Umberto Contarello) and directed. Sorrentino has an odd preoccupation with using crane shots, but he and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi create a lot of very beautiful images. The movie looks great. But it’s the writing and the editing that bury this movie under the weight of its own premise. If Penn had only given up on the voice—or even half the voice—this might have been saved. It still would have suffered from abrupt mood shifts and incidental characters dropping in to slap us in the face with a little philosophizing, but it would still have that kernel of quality emotion from Hirsch’s character and that final resolution.
Ever since Ordinary People (1980), I’ve been a huge Judd Hirsch fan. When he decides to really do a job, he does it. He brings such a spectacular combination of scruffiness and power while remaining casual that is so great to watch. He does it here. Sean Penn I’ve already complained about. One can certainly appreciate how dedicated he was to the odd fellow he created, but I would not be among that faction. Ultimately, his character was too silly a contrast with the very realistic, very serious problems that the character had. McDormand is well thought of, but her character is neither funny enough to enjoy or important enough to justify more than two dimensions.
This Must Be the Place reminded me a lot of The Master (2012) in its occasional forays into surrealism, but lacked the organic integrity to feel both perfect and unintelligible.