Cheyenne, a once famous rock star, has not played music in decades. But in the midst of a life-altering cross country trek, a little boy convinces him to pick up a guitar once again. Clearly, things have changed since Cheyenne’s heyday:
Billy: Can you play ‘This Must Be the Place’ by Arcade Fire?
Cheyenne: Nonsense, ‘This Must Be the Place’ is by the Talking Heads.
Billy: No its not. It’s by Arcade Fire.
Cheyenne: Trust me. You’re delusional . . . ‘This Must Be the Place’ is by the Talking Heads. Arcade Fire merely did a cover.
Billy: Oh . . .
As the film opens, we watch as Cheyenne (played by a largely subdued, heavily makeuped Sean Penn) applies his trademark black nail polish, lipstick, big black hair, and solitary earring. Looking like a haggard and aged Robert Smith (of The Cure), Cheyenne seems suck in the ‘80s and refuses to age gracefully. In fact, not much has changed for the aging rock star in nearly three decades. He lives off extensive royalties and various investments (of which he only moderate cares about) as a quasi-recluse in his Dublin mansion – a self-imposed isolation from the world he feels turned on him and a tragedy that he blames himself for.
He has few friends and his day-to-life is rife with apathy and malaise. In a scattered, slow-moving introduction, we watch him meander and mumble (likely from years of drinking and drug use, plus sciatica apparently) his way around a local mall, coffee shop, and neighborhood streets of Dublin, dragging his old lady cart and constantly blowing his hair out of his face. Despite all his money, wonderful house, and lovingly content and normal wife (playing by the ever so delightful Frances McDormand), Cheyenne is sacked with boredom, depression, and guilt. He needs something new in his life. He needs purpose again. Music is not the answer – his heart was never even that into it, he admits in one heartbreaking scene.
When his long estranged father dies in America, Cheyenne sets off on a personal odyssey of maturation, acceptance, and reconciliation – though it takes him quite a while to get there (he is afraid of flying, trains make him sick, and he has not driven a car in twenty years). Like most road trip and coming-of-age/mid-life-crisis films, through the picturesque American vistas, Cheyenne meets a host of interesting people (an ornery old lady, a lonely, young single mother) and reunites with old friends (family, fellow musician David Byrne) that alter his perception of the past and life in general.
Oh yeah, and did I mention that through all this self-discovery, Cheyenne is also searching for the Nazi guard at Auschwitz who profoundly embarrassed his young Jewish father? His father searched for this man for most of his life, coming close but never finding him. So Cheyenne picks up the scent (rather easily mind you) in order to get closer to his father or prove him wrong, whichever you prefer. Though to be honest, the whole Nazi hunting plotline really only serves as the catalyst for the trip and really only moves to the forefront of the film in a few scenes, including its own interesting, but slightly unsatisfying resolution.
In a gentle, feminine-like whisper and punctuated by short giggles, Penn is enjoyable and even funny as Cheyenne – that kind of quirky, supposedly challenging role past Oscar winners feel obligated to take on. Penn is surrounded by a strong supporting cast, particularly McDormand (always reliable) and Kerry Condon (who also shined on HBO’s short-lived horse racing drama Luck). Brief appearances from longtime favorites Judd Hirsch and Harry Dean Stanton are also a delight.
With a keen eye for surreal beauty, director Paolo Sorrentino (a respected Italian filmmaker making his English language film debut) employs a number distinctive camera angles and movements (including more than a fair share of slow motion) to give the unique look. And of course, there is great music – mostly written by David Byrne, including several iterations of the title song.
To say the least, This Must Be the Place avoids what you expect it to do, for the most part. In trying to be a like Wim Wenders film (which certainly is not a bad model, just a difficult one to achieve, even with Harry Dean Stanton in the picture), the movie meanders and is bit disjointed – filled with some terrific scenes, but also some rather unnecessary ones – more like a collection of moments with multiple storylines rather than a single cohesive film. It often finds itself moving (sometimes awkwardly) between opposing tones – filled with either humor or poetic reflection – that makes it difficult to gauge. In saying that, it is quite funny, with numerous bits of odd humor and deadpan comedy. Overall, it is a movie I did not expect to like, but surprisingly did. It takes a while to get into and even longer until Penn’s appearance stops being a distraction, but once it does, the movie settles in quite nicely.
This Must Be the Place opens Friday, January 11 at Chalmette Movies at 2:45 and 8:45 p.m. daily.
So come out and support Chalmette Movies (8700 W. Judge Perez Dr.) by catching this new film, so that the theater can continue bringing interesting films like these to the New Orleans-area. Also, visit the theater’s website for more information, directions, showtimes, and ticket prices.
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