Yes, that is indeed Sean Penn in drag and looking a lot like the Cure's frontman Robert Smith with his frizzled black hair, white make-up, eye liner and red lipstick.
But This Must Be the Place is not a biopic about the British mope and Gothic poster-boy who peaked in the late 80s. It is a quiet, affecting indie drama anchored by Penn's remarkable lead performance, which is not as Oscar-baiting as it may appear. After big award-winning turns in Tree of Life, Fair Game, Milk and Mystic River, the little bulldog goes for an interior character study despite his ghastly, almost ghostly outward appearance.
The result is spellbinding.
Cheyenne (Penn) is a 50-year-old former US rock star and ex-heroin addict. He lives off his royalties in a Dublin mansion with his doting wife (Frances McDormand). Bored, depressed and listless, he knocks back interview requests but still puts on his hair and make-up for games of handball in the empty swimming pool.
When Cheyenne learns of his estranged father's death, he goes on a lonely odyssey across the US Mid West, searching for the nazi who tormented his father in Auschwitz. He even buys a gun and hires a Jewish nazi hunter (Judd Hirsch) to help him find the war criminal in hiding.
This Must Be the Place is a small but affecting journey of discovery from Paolo Sorrentino, an Italian director making his first English-language film after celebrated efforts such as Il Divo and The Consequence of Love. I doubt it would exist without the inclusion of Penn, who champions his cause and delivers one of the bravest, oddest performances in recent memory.
Despite playing a boy in a man's body, his acting prowess shines through as he imbues Cheyenne with imperfections and idiosyncrasies. He talks in whispers, gives a muffled cackle instead of a laugh and has a knack for ironic observations ("We go from an age when we say 'My life will be that', to an age when we say 'That's life'.").
In other words, Penn makes you love a rather unlovable character.
Yet the narrative isn't quite up to the nuances of his performance. As Cheyenne wanders the American heartland looking for clues to his mark, he's forced to interact with working-class schmos. He reunites with his high school history teacher (Joyce Van Patten), gets advice from a suitcase inventor (Harry Dean Stanton) and helps a young boy.
Paolo is clearly playing the fish-out-of- water card here, forcing the childlike Cheyenne to come out of his shell and grow into his adult body. It makes for a nice visual contrast, with the brain-damaged freak sipping tea with suburbanites. But that gives the film the feel of an indie Forrest Gump, where we see America through the eyes of a socially retarded soul.
It's all a bit obvious.
That said, I enjoyed This Must Be the Place, which takes its title from the Talking Heads song. David Byrne himself sings that song live in the film and adds to the soundtrack. A boy later insists the song is originally by Arcade Fire - a depressing sign of the times.
Indeed, This Must Be the Place is dotted with canny observations about the young and the old, the new and the has-been or the original and the knock-off. Quiet, tender and filled with life's tiny profundities, it's a highly original film lifted by a profound performance. <div class="endnote">