There's an imperceptibly fine line between being delightfully quirky and obnoxiously so. This Must Be the Place falls just on the right side of that line. Had there been just one more quirky detail, perhaps I would have been thoroughly annoyed. But there wasn't, and so I ended up loving it.
Sean Penn stars as Cheyenne, a reclusive New Wave pop singer -- surely styled after Robert Smith of The Cure -- who spends his post-rock star days living off royalties in a Dublin manse with his wife Jane (Frances McDormand). There's a general melancholy about him, but somehow this feels about right given the whole Robert Smith thing, even though it certainly isn't. Cheyenne is a rich man with a lovely wife. He's constantly blowing strands of hair out of his face and he finishes his often wry and insightful sentences with an irresistible half-giggle. He seems to have it all -- even a sense of humor -- and yet, when you first meet him, he shuffles aimlessly about his house and Dublin seemingly in search of purpose.
What's ailing Cheyenne isn't as simple as a mid-life crisis or the reality of his star having long waned. Instead, it has more to do with a tragedy involving two of his fans and (completely unrelated to that) a deep disconnect with his father, a survivor of Auschwitz whose death manages to pry him out of his cocoon in Ireland and sends him to America and on a cross-country trip in pursuit of his father's Nazi tormentor.
Just typing that sentence was weird enough; it's even harder to imagine dreaming up sending such a character on such a journey unless you're using the Family Guy manatees. Such originality is admirable in its own right, but of course it doesn't guarantee that a great film is going to result (see John Dies at the End for a good recent example of this). That director and writer Paolo Sorrentino was able to deliver both a wholly unique premise and a genuinely good story is a credit to him, especially when you consider that washed up rock stars aren't usually the type of people Western culture pulls for. Sorry, Celebrity Rehab doesn't count. In fact, it's proof that the opposite is often the case.
A considerable part of the burden of making Cheyenne a character we want to succeed also fell on Penn, and he doesn't disappoint. In my review of Lincoln, I marveled at Daniel Day-Lewis' ability to completely disappear in to a role. Penn does not quite possess this particular mutant power. Whether he's wearing the eyeliner of a past-his-prime rocker or playing a gay rights activist or a mentally challenged man, you always kind of know it's him. Even so, you rarely fail to connect with his characters. He doesn't become Cheyenne. He makes him his own, and does it in such a way that you're deeply invested in how things end up for him.