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Monday, September 10, 2012

This Must Be the Place

Late again! Sorry about that but this time I have something of an excuse: my laptop was stolen! Anyhoo, we should be back in the swing of things soon, starting with this late review of a really cool and very weird little comedy drama.

Despite Sean Penn's appearance on the poster and, for that matter, in the film itself, This Must Be the Place is based on a song, not by The Cure, but by The Taking Heads. And, it should be said, it's pretty easily my favourite Talking Heads song, which is jut as well because This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) appears something like a dozen times throughout the film in various forms and cover versions. It even shows up in a full live performance by David Byrne himself that would perhaps have been self-indulgent, if its pay off wasn't so perfect.

I am, however, getting a head of myself. This Must Be the Place tells the story of Cheyenne, a burned out former rock star from that very particular miserabilist post-punk music scene, who embarks on a cross-Atlantic-then-cross-country pilgrimage to find the Nazi war criminal who tormented his estranged and recently deceased father during his time in a Nazi concentration camp.

It's an endlessly quirky and self-consciously off-beat story that is anchored by a very simple road-trip/ quest structure. Its episodic structure keeps the film from ever coming close to vanishing up its own arse, while its oddball, deadpan sense of humour and magnetically enigmatic lead stop it from ever becoming rote or predictable. It's interesting that the film shares its name with the working title of Sam Mendes' superb and crushingly underrated Away We Go, as the two easily rank as two of the best road-trip films of recent memory.

Like Away We Go, This Must Be the Place has a very definite directorial signature - Paolo Sorrentino's direction can almost be seen as a mix of Wim Wenders' lyricism with Wes Anderson's deadpan sense of humour, but that barely tells half the story - but its greatest weapon is its central protagonist. Sean Penn has always been a very severe, not to mention, rather good, actor but it's nice to see him take on a role with a bit of a sense of humour for a change. At first, his portrayal of Cheyenne looks mannered to the point of annoying unbelievability but as the film goes on, his acting becomes more and more nuanced, as you get used to the strangeness of the character he is trying to bring to life.

And what a character. Like Penn's performance, Cheyenne looks set to be an incredibly irritating and one-note protagonist but, as the minutes pass, he becomes increasingly fascinating, sympathetic and complex. As his kooky wife (Francis McDormand, terrific as ever) tells him early on in the film, "you're not depressed, you're just bored" so as he embarks on his quest and meets a variety of interesting characters, he starts to come out of his shell as e at long last starts to find some kind of purpose in his life.

Like the best road trip movies, This Must Be the Place is as much about exploring the inner workings of its main character as it is about exploring the external circumstances in which he finds himself. His encounters are at times moving, at times entertaining and always compelling but its Cheyenne's evolving character that is the true heart of the film. He goes from being to a bored, completely out of touch ex-rock star who, for all intents and purposes, is forever stuck in his own fantastical little world to becoming a more "rounded" human being with an ability to engage the world around him.

It may require a bit of patience, but with its beautiful choreography, David Byrne infused soundtrack, perfect performances and wonderfully subtle but fully fleshed characterization, This Must Be the Place is a quirky treat and is well worth checking out at your local art house cinema.

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