This Must Be The Place (2011)

Starring: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Harry Dean Stanton, Judd Hirsch, Eve Newson, Kerry Condon, David Byrne

Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Sean Penn as Cheyenne in This Must Be The Place

Rock star Cheyenne (Sean Penn) is stuck in a rut. A wealthy, eccentric recluse, he hasn't played a note in twenty years, since two teen age boys killed themselves to his depressing music. Combining the dishevelled hairstyle, caked-on makeup and monochrome wardrobe of The Cure's Robert Smith with the quivering, tic-ridden, mournfully pedantic manner of Ozzy Osbourne, he shuffles round his Dublin mansion like a caricature of himself, his own Spitting Image puppet. If Edward Scissorhands had had a hard paper round, he'd have looked like the seamy-faced, weary-eyed Cheyenne.

But when his father falls ill and dies, this pampered, inward-looking, bored manchild is forced to make the journey to America, where he discovers that his father was hot on the trail of the Nazi prison guard who humiliated him while he was imprisoned in Auschwitz during the Second World War. And Cheyenne, the world's most unlikely war criminal hunter, sets out to track him down.

Sean Penn as Cheyenne in This Must Be The Place

Yes, it's as unfeasible as Willy Wonka being evicted from the Chocolate Factory and invited to join the CSI team, and no, the words 'comedy' and 'holocaust' don't generally sit comfortably together. Yet writer and director Paolo Sorrentino has managed to craft a delightful, beautiful, funny film in which '80s indie rock culture meets classic American road movie meets coming of age flick (even if the character in question is somewhere round his fifties) meets, yes, Holocaust survival memoir – and somehow these dissonant elements don't jar. It shouldn't work, it really shouldn't, but it just does.

Seen through the prism of Cheyenne's sheltered, disconnected existence (he may have spent his youth 'sniffing heroin' – afraid of needles, of course – but he only has as 'general' awareness of the Holocaust) we experience its horrors anew and learn how it continues to haunt the survivors and their descendants. But this is no heartbreaker like Sarah's Key – the story may be laden with sadness, but the overall feel of the film is warm, quirky and affectionate, a bit daft, even.

Frances McDormand as Jane in This Must Be The Place

Cheyenne is a ridiculous figure, but oddly lovable too – the kind of woeful, winsome misfit usually played by Johnny Depp. Again, Sean Penn seems an utterly bizarre piece of casting, yet he's truly superb, almost unrecognisable and totally convincing, inhabiting the role completely. Oh, and the ever-marvellous Frances McDormand shines as his down-to-earth, wryly humorous, supportive wife.

The narrative may be slow and rambling and unexpected as its central character, but it's utterly engaging the whole way through, and the glowing beauty of the cinematography, each frame a picture perfectly posed as an album cover, together with the charm of Penn's performance, somehow encourage us to swallow the random twists and turns of the plot.

A bitter-sweet comedy that's both touching and laugh-out-loud funny, This Must Be The Place is probably the oddest film I've seen this year. But it's also one of the most interesting and lovely.

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