Sometimes pushing a good idea a little too far can take it exactly where it needs to go. Already deemed a financial failure but rescued from oblivion by Chalmette Movies, Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino's This Must Be the Place has a premise that defies comprehension: A retired and mildly depressed rock star from the '80s modeled after the Cure's Robert Smith redeems himself by becoming a self-styled Nazi-hunter on a freewheeling trip across America. What?
Achieving the suspension of disbelief required to fully enjoy this unconventional film comes down to accepting what Sean Penn dishes out as Cheyenne, former leader of the fictional band Cheyenne and the Fellows (named in tribute to original punk heroes Siouxsie and the Banshees). When we meet his character, perennial tough-guy Penn is busy applying red lipstick and black toenail polish. Cheyenne is a soft-spoken man-child, a Goth Michael Jackson whose life was derailed by a couple of young fans who took his melancholy songs too much to heart. Cheyenne is intended to be the last person on earth who could ever hunt a Nazi, even if it's to avenge his recently deceased father. If you can get past Penn's out-on-a-limb characterization, you'll be rewarded with a sad, sweet and ultimately satisfying road movie.
The film is named after a typically offbeat-but-sincere love song by the Talking Heads. Multiple versions of "This Must Be the Place" carry the soundtrack and set the tone, especially in a warm and spirited version performed live in the movie by David Byrne with his current band. Byrne also collaborated with indie-rock icon Will Oldham on a fresh batch of songs for the film that serve convincingly as rough demos for another fictional band looking to hire Cheyenne as producer. And Byrne plays himself as an old friend of Cheyenne's in what may be the movie's most memorable scene. Cheyenne bares his soul to Byrne and makes all that follows a little easier to swallow.
This Must Be the Place finds its footing after Cheyenne turns detective. That's because it finally expands beyond the character's insular world. Director Sorrentino's visual style is both lush and precise, and he makes each shot interesting no matter where he points the camera. With his first English-language movie, Sorrentino reveals an intuitive grasp of the American heartland. The film's principal pleasures arrive in the form of wide-open spaces and chance encounters with oddball characters, all captured with the fresh eye of an astute first-time visitor. Once it kicks into gear, This Must Be the Place recalls the American road movies of German director Wim Wenders — including his soulful masterpiece, Paris, Texas. The star of that '80s classic is the great Harry Dean Stanton, whom Sorrentino brings out of retirement here for a small but pivotal role. It all feels like coming home to a time when movies and music didn't apologize for being different. This must be the place, indeed. — KEN KORMAN