March 13, 2013

New Disc Review: THIS MUST BE THE PLACE (Blu-Ray)

Starring Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, Eve Hewson, Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton, Joyce Van Patten, David Byrne. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino. (2011, 111 min).

Anchor Bay Entertainment

This is about as whacked-out an idea for a movie since Bubba Ho-Tep. Sean Penn plays Cheyenne, an aging, burned-out goth rocker. Still dressing like it's the 1980s, he resembles an undead member of The Cure. Retired and living off of his wealth in Ireland, he mostly shuffles aimlessly around his mansion while his doting wife (Frances McDormand) divides her time between fire-fighting and taking care of him. When he learns his estranged father is deathly ill, he sums up the courage to leave the safety of his home to visit him. Unfortunately, his dad dies before he can get there.

It’s at this point the movie makes a bizarre turn (at least on paper). A professional Nazi hunter reveals that Cheyenne’s father was a Holocaust survivor who was tormented in Auschwitz by an SS officer, and that man is now hiding somewhere in America. So Cheyenne embarks on a cross-country quest to find him and avenge his father.

The plot sounds like the makings of a black comedy, but This Must Be the Place is a very low-key, deliberately-paced character drama that plays like a serious version of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Like Pee Wee, Cheyenne seems to exist in a completely different world than the people he encounters on his road trip to revenge, yet those he meets always accept him for what he is, despite his unbelievably goofy appearance and mannerisms.

I was totally prepared to hate this movie. I’ve never been a big Sean Penn fan, and not even ten minutes into it, I was forced to accept it wasn’t going to be some wild genre mash-up like Bubba Ho-Tep. And God does it start slow!

But This Must Be the Place is one of those films where patience is rewarded, and the fact that it defies viewers’ expectations ends up being one of its greatest virtues. It isn’t a story of revenge, but one of redemption and closure, bundled up as a road trip where we meet the characters who inevitably snap Cheyenne out of the 20-year time warp he’s been stuck in, which includes the very ex-Nazi he is hunting.

Not to say the film is completely dark and serious; there are a lot of amusing moments, most of them provided by Cheyenne’s appearance and obvious discomfort when dealing with the real world.

Ironically, I think the biggest flaw in the film might lie in its main character. Even though Cheyenne is in nearly every scene, he is still kind-of a caricature, a composite of burned-out rock star cliches. The people who move in and out of his life during this quest are far more interesting, even though none of them have more than maybe ten minutes of screen time. As Cheyenne moves on, we’re almost sad to see him leave these people behind. Still, despite how out-of-touch he seems, at least we like Cheyenne. Personally, I haven’t found Penn this amusing since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. In fact, you could almost imagine Cheyenne as the middle-aged version of Jeff Spicoli after drugs have taken their toll.

What I appreciate most about This Must Be the Place is that it defied my expectations, and will be likely one of those movies where I can't totally explain why I like it.

FKMG RATING: *** (out of 4)

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