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Non-Review Review: This Must Be The Place

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012. It was the second “surprise” film.

This Must Be The Place is a film that has several interesting components, but keeps them so thoroughly isolated from one another through almost deft use of road movie clichés that nothing ever clicks. Paolo Sorrentino hasn’t so much made a movie as he has stapled a bunch of holiday snapshots together, treating us to a holiday slideshow full of half-finished anecdotes, banal details and no real sense of structure. That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of brilliance scattered through the over-long and self-indulgent mess of a film, but the fact is they can’t add enough flavour to salvage the film.

Here's lookin' at you, punk...

I’ll confess to being a bit disappointed with the choice of This Must Be The Place as the second surprise film. People had been guessing it for weeks, so it really wasn’t that much of a surprise. The fact that it was the only film that senior staffers were vigorously denying suggested that the organisers doth protest too much. “I can tell you it’s definitely not that,” one staff member told the queue as they filled out their guesses, depriving one poor fellow of the chance to win a season pass. After the left-field brilliance of the first choice, a movie nobody in the room expected, this seemed like “the foregone conclusion film” rather than a surprise film.

And, to be honest, it’s disappointing the festival couldn’t have done more with this film. After all, Paolo Sorrentino has been a guest of the festival in years past, the film was financed by the Irish Film Board and the opening half-hour takes place in Dublin. You’d imagine that it would have been easy to make a big deal of the film, in the same way that we did with Stella Days or Saving the Titanic. I’m not the film’s biggest fan, but it is a rather unique example of a film made in Ireland, so it’s strange to see it relegated to this slot.

Lounging around...

Anyway, enough about the scheduling. I’m sure that the festival organisers looked into hosting a gala screening or making a big event of it, and it simply didn’t come to pass. I’ve been largely impressed with the scheduling of the festival, and this is really the exception that proves the rule. Of course, I still would have attended the gala screening, and probably paid more for my ticket, because Sorrentino’s movie has a rather enticingly quirky premise. It’s about an ageing rock star who has retired to Dublin. To overcome his existential ennui, he embarks on a trip across America to find the escaped Nazi who tormented his father at Aschwitz. If that doesn’t sound like a quirkily off-beat basis for a road movie, I don’t know what does.

The problem is that it’s too quirky. There’s no substance. Serrentino films the movie like an over-long music video, with lots of crane shots and contemplative moments, but with little attention to any of the internal character dynamics or plotting or pacing. It looks lovely, mostly, but it never truly engages. With the exception of the small scenes that Penn shares with Francis McDormand, none of the character interactions seem real or tangible. Instead, it’s like a half-considered thought-experiment, where even Serrentino seems to decide the conversations aren’t working mid-flow.

Feel the Byrne...

Consider the cameo from David Byrne, who provides the film’s music and who had inspired the film’s title. Byrne plays himself, as an old friend of Penn’s crusty old rocker. The scene is brief, with Penn’s character describing Byrne as “an artist” and then providing exposition about why he is living in a self-imposed exile in Dublin. Without telling you what that revelation might be, and possibly spoiling the film, Serrentino doesn’t seem to know what to do about it. He cuts the scene off immediately after the confession, and never broaches it again.

Given how profoundly those events must have impacted on our lead character, one would imagine they’d play a crucial part of his character arc. If the movie is about our ageing rocker making peace with the world, that would be a fairly efficient place to start, after all. Unfortunately, it is never mentioned or alluded to after that point. It’s just one of many plot threads that Serrentino can’t seem to be bothered to deal with, despite the fact he has set it up as a necessary barrier on his hero’s journey.

Growing old disgracefully...

Similarly, there are lots of other smaller moments that Serrentino suggests, but never explores – either because he likes the ambiguity or because he felt that other aspects of the production merit attention. For example, we never find out what happens with the truck. Shea Whigham shows up for a scene to give our lead a means of getting around the United States, providing a scenery-chewing big businessman. We’re told how much the truck means to him, and then something happens to it – we’re assured, via flashback, that there will be consequences. There are no consequences.

The movie has an incredible lack of focus, which would be grand in a different type of movie. However, Serrentino has very clearly set up these plot points and character arcs, so it’s frustrating to see him ignore them. We know that our lead must overcome his boredom, just as we know he must hunt down the escaped war criminal who tormented his father. We don’t need extended sequences where he inserts himself into the lives of small-town folk, including the obligatory mother and young son with absent father. We don’t need long shots of our lead driving down the road, and montages reflecting on how significant a difference he has made to the people he encountered.

A sad, sad song...

There are moments that work in isolation, but that don’t work as part of the movie. I quite liked a small scene with Harry Dean Stanton, or a moment where our punk rocker gets a chance to demonstrate his formidable skill at ping-pong. The problem is that they never really feel like part of anything larger, and the never feel quite as natural as they should. It’s a very strange sensation, and it’s only frustrated by the way that Serrentino extends his narrative to keep inserting extraneous elements.

That’s not to say that there aren’t little pieces of the whole that work in isolation. Serrentino creates a lovely portrayal of Dublin, perfectly capturing the city’s soul in an image he frequently returns to – that of a council housing estate with an ultra-modern sports stadium seemingly in the backyard. It’s a clever way of conveying the uneasy coexistence of old and new in the city, and it’s to Serrentino’s credit that he manages to provide an accurate picture of the city without making it look like a dark or dreary or depressing place to live. Those early scenes work quite well, perhaps because they feature Frances McDormand, who plays one of the few characters to have any functional interaction with our lead.

A shady character?

The other solid aspect of Serrentino’s film is Sean Penn himself in the role of Cheyenne, a punk rocker clearly named in honour of Siouxsie and the Banshees, wearing ever-present make-up in the style of Robert Smith from the Cure. Penn does a solid job as Cheyenne, playing a very toned-down (almost childlike) character, but one seething with passive-aggressive resentment, ready to bubble to the surface. It’s a nice portrayal from Penn, who is always reliable.

The problem with Cheyenne is that he’s not an especially compelling protagonist. He’s not expressive, and he doesn’t lend himself to being emotionally open. He has no real understanding of other people, but he also has no sincere desire to change or grow. He’s exceptionally internalised, which makes it difficult to get a read on him. This isn’t Penn’s problem, as he’s just conveying an essential part of the character. When he does eventually come around a corner, it feels like he’s doing so because the film is ending, rather than because he reached enlightenment.

Lipstick jungle...

I can’t help but feel that the movie might have been stronger had Sheyenne been paired with another character to consistently interact with. The opening sequences are strong because we see that he has a loving wife to balance his own introverted nature, but the film dies once the two split up and he embarks on his quest alone. Indeed, he teams up with a Jewish investigator towards the end of the film, but the pair don’t spent enough time together to properly gel.

The movie’s soundtrack, naturally, borrows quite a few cues from the Talking Heads song that gave the film its name It’s an intriguing experiment, but there are really only so many variations of This Must Be the Place that I can hear within a two-hour period before it becomes simply too much. It isn’t a flaw in the film – I think the score might have worked better if it had something to play off – but it doesn’t help manage the mess that movie becomes towards the end.

None of it rings true...

It’s a shame, because Serrentino is obviously a tremendously talented individual. There are a few isolated sparks of brilliance to be found in This Must Be The Place. The problem is that, to paraphrase another musician, Serrentino simply can’t start a fire.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 1

7 Responses

  1. This movie looks pretty strange but also very interesting, especially with Penn looking like Robert Smith. Whens it supposed to come out?

  2. Excellent review. I saw this a couple of days ago and I’ve been wrestling with my thoughts about it ever since. on one hand, as you say, the movie for a down way too many blind alleys – the truck owner, the mysterious passenger, the sex-machine mate – but in others it’s really quite poignant. I wanted to mark it highly but didn’t. Better, I’d suggest, is to mark it as a lesser Everything Is Illuminated.

    • I agree, Colin. I think there are great moments and ideas, but it’s just so unstructured and so unaware of what works and what doesn’t that it’s hard to truly embrace.

  3. I’m looking forward to hearing Kells man Michael Brunnock singing on this wonderful soundtrack.

  4. I struggled to watch this film all way through. I found the film cliches irritating. And the left turn to the nazi element was so pointless! It had little structure and the Penn’s character was pathetic. The only good thing it had going for it was David Byrnes cameo & the music score! I’ll be telling my friends to ignore this pretentious bore!!! 🙂

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