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This Must Be The Place

by Brandon Edmonds / 30.07.2012

Coming to America can really make or break a director. It was a perfect fit for Hitchcock, Lang and Polanski (until he got handsy with a lolita in Jack Nicholson’s hot tub) while Joseph Losey and Stanley Kubrick (famously turning Pinewood studios into New York in “Eyes Wide Shut”) got the hell out of there. Poor Orson Welles probably should have done the same. Bergman, Godard and Kurosawa never shot in the Land of the Free and that may be why they’ll forever be pure examples of ‘national cinema’. Like um Schuster is here.

It may be you have to love America – the sheer democratic sprawl of it, the giant physical scale of the place and be open to its credulous down home ways – to shoot well there. Werner Herzog’s first trip stateside Stroszek (1977) was a must-see win for the dancing chicken and the loopy intensity of the lead Bruno. S. Wim Wenders also got America right with his haunting Paris, Texas (1984): 23-year old Natasha Kinski in a pink sweater behind glass (sweet Jesus), lonely deserts and Ry Cooder’s perfect scraped guitar. Canonical by now. Emir Kusturika failed with the empty, folksy Arizona Dream (1993) and more recently Wong Kar-Wai got undone by the States with the execrable My Blueberry Nights (2007) that hopelessly tries to make Norah Jones cool.

Now my favourite director on earth, Paolo Sorrentino, the ‘new Fellini’, has ventured stateside in his new film This Must be the Place (2011) and he comes close to losing himself – but his effortless visual flare saves him along with a wonderful performance by Sean Penn that somehow manages to channel the following (and more): late era Robert Smith from the Cure, who looks like an overstuffed skunk in John Wayne Gacy clown make-up, Edward Scissorhands, Emo Phillips, “Harold & Maud”, Phil Spector, Truman Capote, Columbine, Cher, Trent Reznor and every sad middle-aged kidult still clinging to the formative sights and sounds of his teens and twenties (Nick Hornby, me and you?).

DIFF - Sean Penn

Not even forty five yet and Naples-native Sorrentino has made some of the best films of the last decade. The Consequences of Love (2004) is a crisp, controlled and deeply satisfying gangster film set in a glum modernist hotel with a heroin-addicted mob accountant falling hard for a bar lady while wrestling with big Kantian imperatives like should I keep the money I stole?

The Family Friend (2006) is even better. A bravura fable eviscerating two-faced Italian society with a troll-like hunchback landlord who extorts favours (sexual or otherwise) from everyone around him while pretending to care. What stays with you is the visual brilliance. The exacting looseness of the imagery. The offhand beauty of the compositions and entertaining narrative flow. Sorrentino wants us to have an exhilarating time at the cinema.

Il Divo (2008) is a bracing, delirious deconstruction of Italian politics that plays out like a debauched Vogue photo shoot on MDMA. It is all anyone needs to understand the priapic Berlusconi era of big-titted MPs and lipstick smeared corruption. And it is fucking great.

DIFF - Robert Smith look-a-like

His English-language debut This Must be the Place is the title of an achingly beautiful Talking Heads song (‘I’m just an animal looking for a home’) about belonging and longing and stuff. And its ‘naïve melody’ suggests all kinds of bittersweet loss that must have been an emotional cue guiding Penn’s funny, searching performance.

He plays a guy called Cheyenne who got rich making depressive pop songs a long time ago and his music soundtracked a pair of teen suicides. This has frozen him with guilt. He’s stuck in a look he ought to have shed decades ago, a way of punishing himself for existing, surviving. He looks like death in a scare wig of bouffant spikes and layers of pancake makeup. He watches Jamie Oliver on TV and plays handball in an empty pool with his loving wife, who kicks his ass. Getting to know him and the life he leads in the opening span of the film is one of the best times you’ll have at the movies. The tone is as perfect as The Big Lebowski and really that good.

“What’s worse than dying sometimes,” someone says in the film, “is going on living.” That’s the existential gear Cheyenne needs to change. The death of his dad takes him back to the States (he moved to Ireland to be near the family of one of the suicides) and the film turns into a shaggy detective story/road movie involving Nazi war criminals, single mothers, small towns, the Arcade Fire, port-a-pools, inked bar flies and lonely fans, all of it acting upon this wry maudlin weirdo tracking his own roots across the mid-west and beyond.

Sorrentino comes very close to losing the plot here by (*exacerbating*) it, by flooding the story with story until it is fit to burst. This is the excess that America has foisted on world directors who dared fathom its mysteries before. And it nearly ruins everything.

But his imagery is that of a born film-maker, so stylish, so curious and fervent, and always such a keen pleasure to take in that you go along with him. Plus Penn never wavers and he keeps us rooting for him with some of the funniest lines in a long time. At a gun store the gun store guy asks him what kind of gun he wants? “One that (*hurts*),” he replies in his vain, ridiculous, anguished falsetto. Safe to say the long, strange trip alters Cheyenne for the better. By the end, he’s moved on. Here’s hoping Sorrentino stays in the country a while.

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