This Must Be The Place (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
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This Must Be The Place (2012)

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Bit of a secular saintAndrew LIKE BannerThis is not a perfect film.   The middle sections are a bit of a rambling mess and This Must Be The Place gets too caught up in its own rendition of melancholic America that one pit stop too many threatens to turn the film into a collection of short mood pieces instead of a cohesive whole.  I suppose those moments could have been trimmed up a bit but this is the sort of wonderful film that deserves to be embraced for all its expressive warts.

2012 was lacking in a lot of experimentation and I'm giddy that I was able to find it in this film.  All we need is the description to see that it's the kind of experience that is either going to fall flat on its face or enter the realm of the sublime.  Cheyenne is an aging '80s rock-star whose moody tunes earned him success and some unwanted attention causing him to retreat into isolation Ireland.  After learning of his father's death, he takes it upon himself to hunt down the Nazi who tormented his old man in Auschwitz during his imprisonment during World War Two.

Sorrentino's delightful color contrasts are equally supported by a wonderful sense of figures in his frame.

Sorrentino's delightful color contrasts are equally supported by a great grasp of his characters to their smallest detail.

Did you start listing the ways that the film could have gone wrong?  Mercifully I did not even have to bear the temptation too much since all I knew was that the director, Paolo Sorrentino, directed the amazing Il Divo a few years back and that Sean Penn looked to be doing something outside his comfort zone.  But even with the threat of whimsy or metaphorical overreach always present Sorrentino and Penn do absolutely no wrong.  It doesn't mean the film is always right, especially in those middle sections, but it soars so beautifully I barely care.

The biggest key to the film's success is in Penn's performance.  When I said this looked like a film that could be outside his range I was using blinders of my own by forgetting his amazing performance in Milk.  It does take some getting used to, especially with the slightly nasal whisper he usually speaks with, but his absolute comfort with himself is a wonder.  Cheyenne is a true innocent though it seems he had to earn that.  Penn's perpetual earnestness is tempered by years of self-abuse that are hinted at just enough, and those magnificent eyes of his do so much heavy lifting during the many musical sections.

Those sections and their music are brought to us by the great David Bryne (who also has a cameo role in the film) and Will Oldham.   There is one part where Bryne, working with Sorrentino and Penn, puts a new spin on the song that provided the title for the film.  The careful stage arrangement offers sudden surprises when Bryne bursts onto the frame, the camera slowly pans out over the crowd before swiveling to find the one sad face among everyone, and Cheyenne stands there looking like his weak heart is burning fiercer than any point in his life.

There are great supporting roles abound, but Shea Wingham is in his own league.

There are great supporting roles abound, but Shea Wingham is in his own league.

When the movie was over I had to go watch that sequence over again and marvel at just how many wires Sorrentino and company were dangling.  It's steeped in traditional music video imagery before acknowledging the sequence's debt to musical history and then finally hammering the whole thing in a close up that only film can accomplish.  Sorrentino succeeds so many times at these sequences that even the failures are so pure and optimistic they deserve praise for even trying.  Hell, it's already an insightful enough choice to have Bryne try and cheer up the depressed Cheyenne, and when he fails it hurts that much more.

Sorrentino extends his brilliant creation to the supporting cast no matter how brief the screentime.  I must single out Frances McDormand, who has never done any wrong, has wonderful chemistry with Penn as the sort of opposites who care enough about other people to understand the odd place each comes from.  The other performer who struck me was Shea Wingham.  If you're not familiar with the man's work, please try and acquaint yourself, because he is a damn treasure (All the Real Girls and Take Shelter are good starting points).  In just a couple of trusting, nervous glances he turns what could have been another stuffed suit role into a painful display of wounded trust.

There's so much I love about this film.  The naked empathy, Penn's performance, the odd details creeping in from the sides, all the dialogue ("Didn't you used to drink a lot?", "Enough to decide to stop"), that I can forgive missteps.  This week both the theaters and DVD shelves were hit with crass reminders of just how cynical and inessential film can be.  This Must Be The Place is a beautiful reminder of the alternative.

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This Must Be The Place - TailThis Must Be The Place (2012)

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino.
Screenplay written by Umberto Contarello and Sorrentino.
Starring Sean Penn and Frances McDormand.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Well I had forgotten about this one!! Though I remember seeing Penn and thinking, I should watch this. Now I’m definitely gonna give this one a go!

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