Cannes 2011 Review: THIS MUST BE THE PLACE

Joshua Brunsting

by: Joshua Brunsting
May 23rd, 2011

Rating: 2/5

Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Writers: Umberto Contarello (screenplay), Paolo Sorrentino (screenplay)
Cast: Sean PennFrances McDormandJudd Hirsch

It’s all about the company you keep, says common sense. However, in the case of IL DIVO director Paolo Sorrentino’s latest effort, the Sean Penn-starring THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, that statement could not be any less truthful.

Following the aging rocker Cheyenne, PLACE tells the tale of a Robert Smith-like front man and emo kid deity, as he not only deals with his very own place in life, but the impact that he has had on the people around him.  Then, with the passing of his father, he sets out to try and make something right, by hunting down the Nazi criminal who persecuted his now deceased father at Auschwitz.

Taking its title from the name of a song by The Talking Heads (leader David Byrne even does music for and has a role in this film), THIS MUST BE THE PLACE is neither as inventive as that iconic art-rock band, nor is watching this film nearly as rewarding as listening to an old record from the group.

Ultimately, the film’s major flaw comes in the film’s leading performance.  Penn is simply the wrong actor for the wrong role, with each line reading coming off as a forced and stilted SNL-like parody of an alt/emo-rocker that would be perfectly at home in something like IFC’s hit TV show, Portlandia. It’s a role that asks for quite a bit of emotional depth to be plumed, and ultimately, it simply feels as though it’s a Sean Penn-acted parody of a character that for all intents and purposes should be something inherently interesting to watch.

Frances McDormand is great here, however, as Cheyenne’s wife, and really balances out the relationship quite well.  She is as real and down to earth as she needs to be, and ultimately makes the viewer wishing more time had been spent on her relationship with her hubby of 30+ years.  After our lead goes on his quest to hunt down the man behind his father’s imprisonment during the Holocaust, the relationship between Cheyenne and his wife completely becomes second to the journey, which undoes both aspects here.  It is a really odd relationship that when on screen, livens the film up, thus losing the audience when it it’s gone.

The film’s supporting cast is also quite solid, with Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton, Joyce Van Patten and particularly Olwen Fouere giving really top-notch performances.  Judd Hirsch also steals every single scene he is a part of; something the actor has been doing his entire career.

And while it may ultimately be an oddly uninteresting character study of a man attempting to atone for his past, the filmmaking itself makes this watching this worth a shot.

Sorrentino, best known for his film IL DIVO, is on the top of his game here, giving the film a really artistic touch, something it desperately needs.  Each frame is beautifully composed and shot, with the camera moving with a lyrical mind throughout Sorrentino’s world.  Sorrentino also infuses the film, thanks to a wonderful script from he and co-writer Umberto Contarello, with this great sense of humor, something that shows in the brief moments of life that Penn allows himself to ooze on screen.  This character does know how to laugh, and when both Penn and Sorrentino allow that to happen, this film is impossible to turn away from.

That said, those moments are few and far between, and what we get in the between time is an uninteresting, almost parody like character study of a man who doesn’t seem to want himself to be studied.  An intriguing look into loss, THIS MUST BE THE PLACE is a gorgeous miss.  Sorrentino proves that he is very much a director to be reckoned with, it’s just too bad that the same can’t be said for the film as a whole.

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