A version of this review appeared in The Age, April 5, 2012.
Sean Penn has played his share of wackos over the years, but we're not likely to think of him mainly as a comic performer. Still, the new film from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino gives its star the chance to match Johnny Depp or Crispin Glover at their own game. Eccentrics don't come much more flamboyant than Cheyenne, a ageing, fey pop singer living in retirement in Dublin, who gets around in a Robert Smith wig and pancake make-up.
Punctuated with nervous titters, his quavery sing-song suggests a blend of Andy Warhol, the comedian Emo Philips, and a digital voice synthesiser. Some of his dialogue sounds like Warhol too: “Have you noticed how nobody works any more, and everyone does something artistic?”
The beauty of the performance is that Penn never subjects Cheyenne to ridicule. Clearly, he believes in the character – not necessarily as a person who could exist in the real world, but as a way of being that makes sense on its own terms. Cheyenne is nobody's fool, though set in his habits and wary of strangers. The joke of the film's droll first half hour is that he lives a largely “normal” life: we see him selecting frozen dinners at the supermarket, catching up with friends, and going to bed with his affectionate wife Jane (played by Francis McDormand as a tough hippie).
This Must Be The Place is styled as a magic-realist phantasmagoria, replete with wacky camera angles, wide-angle lenses, unmotivated dolly shots, and close-ups that allow Penn to show off his repertoire of baffled frowns. Once Cheyenne embarks on a mission that brings him to the United States, it becomes a tribute to the all-American alienation of one brand of 1980s pop culture, with cameos from David Byrne (playing himself) and Harry Dean Stanton. It takes some patience to get in the groove, especially as Sorrentino is so keen to throw us off-balance; while we try to piece together the fragments of information we're given about Cheyenne's past, we're left wondering where the movie could possibly be headed.
But gradually, Cheyenne emerges as a most improbable representative of goodness and innocence – an innocence which the film puts to the ultimate test. As his subject-matter turns sombre, Sorrentino admittedly bites off more than he can chew, laying himself open to charges of sentimentality, pretension and sheer bad taste. But there wasn't a certain amount of risk involved, this strange trip would hardly be worth taking.