CANNES REVIEW: Even With Sean Penn, Sorrentino's This Must Be the Place Most Certainly Is Not

In the past few years we've seen a mini-renaissance in Italian filmmaking, an environment in which young filmmakers like Paolo Sorrentino have been able to flourish. Sorrentino broke through with his 2008 political epic Il Divo, which won a special jury prize here in Cannes that year. So what happened with his follow-up, This Must Be the Place, a picture so ill-conceived and so bizarrely executed that watching it, I wondered if nine days (and counting) of nonstop movies had finally pitched me right over the edge of sanity?

Sean Penn, in chalk-white makeup, kohl-rimmed eyes and black hair that could sure use some Frizz-Ease, plays Cheyenne, a retired rock star who looks a little like the Cure's Robert Smith but a lot more like one of those scary collectible clown dolls that you can buy for three installments of just $19.99 each. You know, the kind that come alive when you're asleep. When Cheyenne speaks, every line comes out in a milky monotone. He can barely get by in the world: He's been married to the same woman for 35 years, a feisty firefighter (!) played by Frances McDormand, and the couple live together on their Irish estate. He's given up performing altogether because, apparently, a fan or two committed suicide after listening to his ostensibly very sad songs. For Cheyenne, life is altogether too much to bear, and it gets worse when he discovers that his father, who lives in America, is close to death.

Cheyenne, having been out of touch with the man for years, dutifully makes the trek home just in time for dad to kick the bucket. Then he decides to trek across the country to find the Nazi who humiliated his father, a Holocaust survivor, in a concentration camp.

Are you laughing yet? Because This Must Be the Place is supposedly something of a comedy, albeit one that includes a death-camp slide show and some very weird ideas about what the relationships between concentration-camp guards and their prisoners must have been like. (I doubt many of them became pen-pals after the fact, but believe it or not, that's what happens here.) On his journey toward self-discovery and, possibly, kicking some very wrinkled, 99-year-old Nazi ass, Cheyenne encounters a young mom struggling to raise her kid alone (Kerry Condon) and meets the inventor of the wheeled suitcase (Harry Dean Stanton). In between, he lets random statements shaped like questions hang in the air ("Why is Lady Gaga?") as everyone around him beams affectionately and indulgently. David Byrne has a small role in the film, at one point performing a lovely rendition of the song that gives the movie its title -- it's a momentary respite from the outsize tweeness of Penn's performance, but it's over before you know it. This Must Be the Place is a bewildering piece of work, a picture that may have initially been guided by a sweet impulse but takes a sharp left turn into crazytown. Whatever you do -- don't go to sleep on that clown.