This Must Be The Place

Sean Penn plays a softly-spoken former rock star on a quest to find his father's Nazi tormentor. Go figure

Not for no reason has Sean Penn gained a reputation for lacking in the humour department. His frequent public pronouncements – including the humourless reaction to his Team America appearance and recent two cents' worth on the Falklands sovereignty issue – could be said to have veered dangerously into righteous territory.

As an artist, however, Sean Penn has demonstrated that he can 'do comedy'. His break out role in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemount High as inveterate surfer stoner dude Jeff Spicoli, for instance, marked him out as an actor of in possession of undoubted comic talents.

In This Must Be the Place, he plays ailing goth rock star Cheyenne delightfully deadpan, with a slight Michael Jackson-esque squeak of a voice, huge back-combed, jet black hair and acres of slap. He comes across as a bizarre fusion between the Cure’s Robert Smith and a doting grandmother.

His glasses perched on the tip of his nose and secured by a chain, he pulls a basket on wheels down to the supermarket in full regalia to frighten the locals. When he laughs, it’s somewhere between a girlish giggle and an involuntary sneeze.

It’s like no performance Sean Penn has given before, and a great deal of the pleasure derived from This Must Be The Place is in watching a double Oscar-winning actor tackle a subject as offbeat and unusual as this – and with evident gusto.

Something is wrong with Cheyenne and he doesn’t know what it is. He has moved to suburban Dublin with his wife of 35 years, spunky fire fighter Frances McDormand, and whiles away his time tinkering about on the stock market and attempting to help along the love life of local girl Mary (Eve Hewson – yes, Bono’s daughter) whose brother has mysteriously disappeared.

Cheyenne also thinks that he might be depressed, but his wife argues that he is confusing depression with boredom.

The first 20 minutes of This Must Be The Place features enough unusual incidents and characters to keep it spun out for the remainder of its running time, but that’s when the plot, such as it is, really kicks in.

First, a mysterious phone call informs Cheyenne that his father is dying. Once back in the States, he discovers that his father, a survivor of Auschwitz, has been tracking down the Nazi officer that tormented him all those years ago – a mission that is now being passed on Cheyenne.

Suddenly, as improbable as it  sounds, This Must Be The Place morphs into an existential road movie, a kind of Robert Smith: Nazi Hunter.

Italian director Paolo Sorrentino has impressed critics and won rafts of awards with his very stylish previous features The Consequences of Love and Il Divo. The latter won him the Jury Prize at the Cannes film festival – with a jury headed by a clearly impressed Sean Penn.

This Must Be the Place is as stylish and unconventional as Sorrentino's previous films. It is beautifully shot and crisply edited. It’s also full of great moments, not least David Byrne’s cameo, during which he sings the title track in all it’s glory before a heart to heart with Cheyenne in a building that he has had converted into a musical instrument. Go figure.

While some critics have taken exception to the strange mash-up between the bittersweet story of an aging pantomime rocker and the Holocaust, it’s exactly that kind of friction that propels the film forward. This is a film that is happy to exist on the edge.

Whether or not you can call it an unqualified success or not, This Must Be The Place is clearly a very brave film that delights in it’s abundance of risks and unexpected twists and turns. Not to be missed.

This Must Be The Place runs in Queen's Film Theatre until April 26.