Exactly how much of a film's running time are we willing to spend grappling with how to approach it? It's a question worth asking in the face of This Must Be the Place, which stars Sean Penn as an aging emo rock star who hits the road to find the Nazi who tortured his father at Auschwitz. That's right; less than a week after ingesting the trailer for FDR: American Badass!, here's Robert Smith: Nazi Hunter. It will not surprise you to hear that it is a deeply strange film. Twice over its course, Penn's "Cheyenne" says "Something is not quite right here," and it's only marginally less of an understatement the second time. Something's not quite right throughout This Must Be the Place. The question is, how much of it is intentional--and, even if it all is, whether that makes it successful.
The co-writer/director is Paolo Sorrentino, and he is not without talent; he's got a good eye for cockeyed visuals, and a frisky sense of humor. When Cheyenne's wife (Frances McDormand, utterly charming and gone way too soon) mentions that MTV wants him to do an appearance, he asks "Why is Lady Gaga..." and just lets it hang there, the question suddenly complete. Early on, his compositions are nearly as funny--he correctly realizes that Penn in full make-up and all-black duds, hair jet black and teased-up, just looks funny shopping for groceries or watching gardening shows on his plasma-screen.
So yes, it's strange. Sorrentino is trying for a kind of faux-Lynchian weirdness, which occasionally plays, and he's got a genuinely peculiar Penn performance to work with. The actor adopts a shaky, strangled, high-pitch voice for the character, and isn't too concerned with subtlety--this is a big, risky piece of work, best glimpsed in the scene where he opens up (to David Byrne, naturally). He's got a paragraph or so of text, which builds in bracing intensity, and Sorrentino shoots it an a unbroken push-in. One can sniffle that the moment--and the way it's done--is purposefully theatrical and showy and overdone, and all of those things are probably accurate. But then what? Accepting that, and allowing it, the moment takes your breath away. There's not a reason in the world that Penn's work in this film should work, and yet it does, so there you have it.
But Sorrentino undercuts his star, and himself. In spite of its occasional flourishes and the bravura performance at its center, This Must Be the Place is a mess, undisciplined in its execution, disastrously unsure in its tone. The script (by Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello) is full of inexplicable scenes and unaccountable detours, and the fact that some of them (the performance of the title song by a likable chubby kid, Harry Dean Stanton's monologue about luggage) are among the most engaging scenes in the movie doesn't excuse the fact that several others are absolute speed bumps, hobbled by their Sorrentino's lack of follow-though.
More importantly, the Nazi stuff is fatally, jarringly, cripplingly wrong. At some critical juncture, Sorrentino needed to make a choice about whether the film was serious or not, and he clearly didn't. It's not that Nazis can't make for fine villains in a way-out picture like this one--Inglourious Basterds and countless others prove quite the contrary. But there's just not room in the same movie for the cutesy shit as there is with the way-out-of-left-field scene where Nazi hunter Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch) runs a slide show of Holocaust photos for a group of his... students? Junior Nazi hunters? (If it was explained, I missed it). Sorrentino plasters them all over the screen, and he uses real atrocity photos here, a move so tasteless and incongruent as to pull this viewer right out of the scene, and the movie for that matter. You can't just cheapen this stuff like that, and it's a lapse from which the picture never fully recovers.
That said, This Must Be the Place is one of those films that's so peculiar, it's almost worth seeing, because you'll certainly never see anything like it again. It certainly isn't boring, you've got to give it that. But its gratuitous weirdness and tonal schizophrenia keeps its audience at a distance. It's full of striking imagery and quirky little moments, but that's not enough for a movie. This film is like a trailer for itself.