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Oddball film with many bright moments and some tender ones
on April 16, 2012
If you're impatient or impervious to the charms of Sean Penn, most likey you'll be unamused. On the other hand, a film whose resume also boasts Frances McDormand, Harry Dean Stanton, Judd Hirsch and a trifecta of performances (live music, a soundtrack and acting) from David Byrne deserves at least an interview.
Even so, it comes very close to blowing the interview, taking an age to answer straightforward questions, seeming distracted, needlessly self-involved and with little interest, at first, in impressing the beholder.
But it does warm up a bit.
To give some sense of both the film's glacial slowness and its self-indulgence, at its mid-point it halts for a five minute intermezzo in which David Byrne and his group perform the title song, in its entirety, live in concert. Apropos nothing, slap-bang in the middle of the film. Now it's a good song, well performed and imaginatively staged (extraordinarily staged, really), but still it is out of all context and has the effect of staunching what gentle narrative current had begun to flow.
Cheyenne (Penn) is an elderly piece of gothic jetsam, washed up from the new-wave scene of the early Eighties. He hasn't played since, yet still mopes around his Dublin castle bedecked in black and with all the boyish accoutrements a wiser man might have put away years before: Black fright wig, white face paint, red lipstick and knee high platform boots.
In other words, he resembles Robert Smith, only older. The cruel would see a flash of Bono in there too. When Cheyenne puts on his half-moon reading spectacles and distractedly blows at a Gothic lock, he even looks like Shirley Williams might, were she the lead singer of the Damned.
Cheyenne rattles around his castle with his firefighter wife Jane (McDormand) and a dog with a funnel on its head. They have an open house, in and out of which flow irregulars: a T'ai-Chi expert, a young singer toting a demo CD he wants Cheyenne to produce and Mary, an under-explained goth teenager who operates like the daughter Cheyenne and Jane never had. Mary isn't half as under-explained as her mother, though, who sits smoking in her room in a bedsit in the shadow of Aviva Stadium (which waggish locals, I gather, call the "Palindrome"!) and staring wordlessly down the street every day. She seems to have some relation to Cheyenne, but despite having read the production notes I couldn't tell you what it is, and I defy anyone watching without them not to be totally flummoxed.
All of this passes Cheyenne by in a hazy, laconic stupor. He slurps juice through a straw and doesn't smoke, so you suppose the drugs have long since done their work. He glumly wheels his trolley to the mall, passively copping mockery and abuse as if he were carrying a cross. Which, of course, he is.
Just as we're settling into this rather surreal Irish kitchen-sink drama, we find out more about that cross. It's a cross of iron. Cheyenne's estranged father, back home in New York, is dying. He embarks, slowly (by ocean liner, of course), to see him. He arrives too late. It turns out Cheyenne is the black sheep of an observant Jewish family. His dad was an Auschwitz survivor.
At this news, you may be thinking: "oh-oh". I certainly was. In any case, this unexpected new plot beat graunches the gears, but is neatly lubricated by David Byrne's bravura performance.
So begins Act II: in his father's death, Cheyenne finds the purpose that has been eluding him over half his life: to cast off his cross. He decides to track down the Auschwitz guard who tormented his father.
As a plot development, given all we know about Cheyenne, this isn't just improbable: it's preposterous. But the outcome isn't half as bad (cinematically) as it could be. Cheyenne borrows a pickup and sets off into America's great interior. He has traded his shopping trolley for a wheelie suitcase but kept the gothic garb, so be under no illusions: Cheyenne still has Baggage.
The undercurrent of Lynchian weirdness in the first half of the film thereby becomes explicit - Cheyenne's meandering progress and the oddballs he meets would not be out of place in The Straight Story (in which Alvin Straight journeys across the Midwest on a lawnmower). While this film isn't half as accomplished, there are some beautiful touches and a couple of moments of excellent slapstick (one involving a speed rollerblader in Central Park is worth the price of admission alone). The photography capturing the wide-open beauty of Utah, often through a super-wide angle lens at ankle level, is often arresting.
The Nazi theme is never over-egged: it is a Macguffin of sorts, not a driving theme of the film. The final confrontation with the ancient (and, as they go, relatively innocuous) camp guard is deftly handled. There is a startling denouement which has as much to say about the instinct for revenge as it does about the Nazi atrocities.
Penn is very good throughout as Cheyenne: a tough character to play without comic exaggeration, and it must have been challenging to Penn to hold such loosely-knit film together with such an unenergetic role. He succeeds surprisingly well.
This Must Be The Place won't blow the box office, and it is hard to see it finding unqualified critical support, but it has many bright moments and some surprisingly tender ones.