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'This Must Be the Place' burns out

6/13/2014 James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies

Sean Penn as an ex-rock-star Nazi hunter feels like a lot to swallow. It is. Smeared in powder, eyeliner and lipstick, with a jet-black unruly mane of hair, Cheyenne (Sean Penn) is a fading, faded rock star who's clearly been lightly battered by time and substance abuse. He putters around a huge mansion in Dublin, living off his royalties with his wife, Jane (Frances McDormand), and friends. It's a bold performance, to be sure: Cheyenne looks like an aged and even more depressed Robert Smith from the Cure, pale from his habits and flush with money.

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Directed by Paolo Sorrentino ("Il Divo") and co-written by Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello, the film starts in the key of comedy as Penn heads down to the local supermarket in his rock-star regalia, getting cellphone snaps taken at the mall and trying to show kindness to a woman and her daughter whose complicated life will become more clear with time. It's a little like watching the most enjoyable episode of "The Osbournes" ever -- enjoyable in no small part because you know that Penn's confused rocker disappears when you say "cut," a figure of fiction to be laughed at and not, like poor dazed Ozzy, a real human being whose age and circumstance are less of a laughing matter.

But we sense that part of Cheyenne's problem is in trying to console the inconsolable, including himself. It's a task that grows more challenging when his father's dying brings him back to New York for the first time in years. At his father's funeral bed, Cheyenne half-vows and half-stumbles into a commitment to travel America with a specific goal of finding the man who tormented his father at Auschwitz and killing him.

The plot sounds like a mix of Wim Wenders -- with a European director leading a determined actor on a road trip through America and a scene with Harry Dean Stanton -- and something out of a Robert Ludlum page-turner as Cheyenne goes out, a defective detective, to write the wrongs of history. It's a little hard to reconcile the comedy of Penn's squeaky-voiced hapless burnout -- who has his reasons for his sadness -- and the irrational political crime of mass genocide. Sorrentino's film is in no small part about what we do with the past -- how we attempt to understand the inexplicable, how we cope with sorrows too great to bear -- but, again, the leap in tone and seriousness from wacky wig-wearing comedy to a discussion of one of the great political and spiritual evil actions of the last century seems a bit jarring.

The supporting cast is good: McDormand is a patient, loving woman with a few curveballs up her oddball sleeves, Eve Hewson and Olwen Fouere are excellent as the Dublin daughter and mother Cheyenne has found and befriended even in their sadness, and Judd Hirsch is a gruff treat as a no-nonsense Nazi hunter. Luca Bigazzi's cinematography -- in Dublin, in Michigan, in Utah, in airports and sad motels -- is also a standout. There's also original (or original and incorporating several versions of the Talking Heads' "This Must Be the Place") music from David Byrne (who appears as himself) and Will Oldham.

I can't tell about Penn. Now and then, he's perfectly deadpan, and now and then you do find yourself wondering just how the helpless, hapless and hopeless Cheyenne has gotten this far with only a fortune and the love of a good woman. "This Must Be the Place" is more interesting than it is out-and-out bad, but interesting alone doesn't cut it. If this movie were a rock show, it would be hard to imagine anyone cheering for an encore with all that much fervor.

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James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at,,,, and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.

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