“This Must be the Place,” a new film about a rock star on a family mission, is a rare thing. Rarer even than a mint condition copy of Amazing Spider-Man #1 or an honest politician. So rare it only comes around once every decade or so. I speak of that elusive beast Pennigma Seanun comoedia—the Sean Penn comedy.
Penn plays Cheyenne, a retired and world weary American rock star living with his firefighter wife Jane (Frances McDormand) in Ireland. “I wrote dreary songs because they were all the rage,” he says. “They made tons of money. Depressed songs for depressed kids.”
Still clinging to the goth look that made his famous in the 1980s—imagine a cross between The Cure’s Robert Smith and Bozo the Clown—he leads a quiet, reclusive life until his father passes away. His father tried and failed to find and get revenge on the Nazi guard who humiliated him at Auschwitz. In light of his father’s death Cheyenne takes up the search, embarking on a road trip that brings him closer to his father and gives his life new meaning.
This is Sean Penn like we’ve never seen him before. With poufy hair, black toenail polish and affected vocal cadence—like Andy Warhol on Quaaludes—he creates an intriguing, strange character.
Once Cheyenne hits the road the movie is episodic and surreal in its storytelling and becomes more of a character study than a traditional narrative. We learn more why Cheyenne is so damaged and yet so compelling. He may be one a mission of revenge of sorts, but he is an innocent, completely free of hate and guile and it is that childlike quality that drives the film.
Couple that with beautiful cinematography and a great score by Talking Head David Byrne (who also makes a cameo appearance) and you have an occasionally self-indulgent art house flick that will win you over with the childlike charm of its main character.