In This Must Be the Place, Sean Penn wanders around like a 1990s goth star left out in the rain — The Cure’s Robert Smith after a four-night bender.
Penn plays Cheyenne, a former singer who has been retired for 20 years and seems to have done nothing except sit around the house. Cheyenne speaks in a nasal whine, like a little girl tugging on her mother’s skirt saying “Please, mommy!” and he walks around as if in a narcotic stupor, even though he doesn’t do drugs. He’s unplugged from the world, from pop culture and from the people around him. His exasperated son walked out on him three months ago without a goodbye. His cheerful wife (Frances McDormand) treats him as her roommate. Every once in a while, Cheyenne will say something funny (“Why is Lady Gaga?”), but Penn plays him mostly as a mealy-mouthed, droopy-eyed bore.
The actor approaches the role from a place of such low energy, you expect This Must Be the Place to be the story of Cheyenne’s reawakening — of his overcoming whatever led him to this state and rejoining the human race.
Director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo), who co-wrote the script, even gives his protagonist a journey, sending him from Dublin to New York to reconcile with his father, who is near death. That trip sends the movie into a surprising direction involving Auschwitz war crimes, moral redemption and the restoration of Cheyenne’s beaten-down idealism. But the entire picture is enveloped by an aura of clammy dullness, made worse by Sorrentino’s unimaginative direction.
Even the eventual revelation of what led Cheyenne to his sad-sack state fails to register, despite the tragic nature of the tale. This Must Be the Place is as emotionally zonked-out as its protagonist, and just as difficult to warm up to.
Cast: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, Eve Hewson, Harry Dean Stanton, David Byrne.
Director: Paolo Sorrentino.
Screenwriters: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello.
Producers: Francesca Cima, Nicola Giulano, Andrea Occhipinti.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 118 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: South Beach.