Wednesday, 25 April 2012

This Must Be the Place (2012)

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

Given the number of po-faced biopics that we’ve seen over the last few months, and with doubtless many more on the horizon, it’s a great relief to see a film like this from Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo). Simply put, there just aren’t enough films about aging rockers hunting for Nazis in America’s heartland.

Retired alt-rock star Cheyenne (Penn) is living in retirement in Dublin with his wife Jane (Frances McDormand). He travels to America to visit his dying father, who he discovers was searching for the Nazi war criminal that tormented him at Auschwitz. Cheyenne decides to take some positive action and sets off to track him down.

While Penn’s striking performance has quite rightly dominated much of the discussion of This Must Be the Place, it’s a pleasure to report that the film itself is worthy of his fantastic turn. It’s almost split into two halves, with the character study of the depressed rock star and the offbeat, Wim Wenders style road movie. Cheyenne’s a character that comes close to falling into parody, with his cramped walk, his high-pitched voice, and that odd-combination of childish naiveté and the fact that his sheltered existence is the result of a lot of bad living. But Penn’s performance is always heartfelt and Sorrentino and co-writer Umberto Contarello clearly feel a great deal of affection for the character.

Cheyenne’s a lot sharper than he lets on, too. Jane may be the victor in their verbal sparring and their sports activities, but they’re definitely a partnership. When he meets with famed Nazi hunter Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch), he’s quick to note the elder man’s concern with reputation and appearances. The hair, the eyeliner, and the lipstick may seem like a defence mechanism against a cruel world but they’re just as effective as a smokescreen for his detective work.

While the first half is often funny, it does go on for a little too long and the film really comes to life when Cheyenne hits the road. While Sorrentino does use the “look how odd he looks here” gag a few times too often, it works because underneath the make-up, the character is a slightly bewildered, heart-sick man who has reached middle age and doesn’t know where he fits. It’s refreshing to find that the people he meets on his journey aren’t the usual succession of stereotypical oddballs. Instead, there’s a retired history teacher, a single mum, and an inventor. OK, the last one’s quirky, but given that he’s played by Harry Dean Stanton there’s no reason to complain. They each have their quirks, to be sure, but they’re identifiably characters rather than types.

It’s a little long, but it’s so vibrantly colourful and shot with wonderful energy by Sorrentino that it never drags. The performances are all pitch-perfect (Penn aside, Kerry Condon and McDormand deserve special mention). It’s funny, beguiling, and finally moving. Oh, and David Byrne pops up as himself. What’s not to like?

Penn is superb in this excellent offbeat road movie.



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