This Must Be the Place is Paolo Sorrentino's typically distinctive take on the American road movie, but the Italian director's first English-language feature is all over the map. It's hard to identify how and why the director has failed so comprehensively here, because simply describing the premise instantly makes it sound like some degree of entertainment is guaranteed. A Goth ex-rocker, now living in Dublin, hears that his father has passed away in the United States and resolves to hunt down the Nazi who made his father's life a misery in the concentration camp he languished in. It's an unusual plot and it deserves a most unusual protagonist, with Sean Penn giving the loopiest turn of his career as the timid, fey Cheyenne.
Penn's committed performance as Cheyenne lends the character a surprising amount of depth, with a lingering sadness being evident in his portrayal of a man who hasn't performed since two fans killed themselves some years earlier, apparently inspired by his lyrics. The makeup-clad Cheyenne now exists in a state of inertia, occasionally enlivened by games of handball with his wife (Frances McDormand) in the couple's empty swimming pool or by visits to his young friend Mary (Eve Hewson), whose mother is similarly lost, gazing out of the window for the son who left home and never returned. This sense of yearning, of wishing to accomplish something or to put things back the way they were, permeates through This Must Be the Place in a number of ways.
The opening section of the film in Ireland may have little to do with where This Must Be the Place ultimately ends up, but it's the best part of the picture, where Sorrentino successfully introduces this intriguing character and scores with his eccentric comic tone. A scene in which Cheyenne awkwardly but endearingly attempts to set up Mary with a date is amusingly played, and McDormand brings a vital spark to her performance, suggesting the good humour and affection that has kept this marriage going for thirty years. Sorrentino's three previous features have centred on inscrutable and frequently unlikable characters; but while Cheyenne is initially a hard figure to read – with his childlike voice posing non-sequitous questions such as "Why is Lady Gaga?" –he's at least a character whose company we enjoy, and someone we're keen to know more about.
We never really do get to know Cheyenne, beyond what we can gleam from Penn's curious and consistently fascinating performance. When he makes the trip to America (sadly leaving McDormand behind), the film becomes more about the strange journey he undergoes and the collection of interesting/eccentric/threatening characters he meets on the road. Judd Hirsch brings a pleasing down-to-earth frankness to his performance as Nazi Hunter Mordecai Midler, but too many of Cheyenne's encounters leave us wondering what the purpose of them was. The film is episodic and facile, and while some individual sequences have entertainment value (It's hard to not chuckle as Cheyenne is trapped in the corner of a kitchen by a troublesome goose) they don't accumulate any weight. I'm not sure what Sorrentino has to say about America as seen through an outsider's eye, and I'm not sure that he does either. A single-scene cameo from Harry Dean Stanton only reminds us that other filmmakers such as Wim Wenders have taken us down this road many times before.
Of course, the film is directed with panache and wit, as we have come to expect from Sorrentino. The centrepiece of the film is a performance of David Byrne's This Must Be the Place, which is superbly staged, and in isolated moments such as this, Sorrentino's film briefly possesses a mesmerising quality. But too often that spell is broken by the director dropping the ball in a clumsy fashion (in this instance, it's a stilted and unnecessary acting cameo from Byrne), and the film continues to proceed on its uneven, unfocused way to a climax that feels horribly misjudged. When Sorrentino tries to draw pathos from the reappearance of the mother pining for her son, it didn't work for me because I had completely forgotten she existed, so wayward and inconsequential the intervening hour had been. I was also baffled by Penn's altered appearance in this coda, and unable to draw a line between the two incarnations of Cheyenne that we see. The star's central performance feels like the one ingredient of This Must Be the Place that's sure of itself, that feels consistent and thought-through, but even this aspect of the film, in the movie's closing moments, is finally cut adrift.