Paolo Sorrentino, of the athletic Italian biopic Il Divo, is far from the first international director to make a road trip picture through America. He is, however, the first to make one in which a two-time Oscar-winner, dolled up to look like the Cure’s Robert Smith, hunts down Nazis. There are several layers of silliness to This Must Be the Place, which stars Sean Penn as John “Cheyenne” Smith, a former pop god who still wears his hair big, as though it was blow dried in a tornado, and dons enough makeup to look like a dead drag queen. His general demeanor is akin to a tranquilized zombie, his voice a nasal whimper, reminiscent of Kids in the Hall teen pop queen Tammy. When he giggles, he sounds like a schoolgirl.
Place shares with Il Divo a reliably static grotesque for a protagonist, although Penn’s rocker is far more amusing: His disengaged quips, jazzily deployed by a rarely funnier Penn, are worth filling up a notebook. (“Do you know about the Holocaust?” “In a general sort of way.”) Sorrentino’s direction is staid compared with Il Divo, where the camera swooped and charged and did somersaults, as if to distract viewers from the single, lone thing it had to say about its subject. Place features a subtly developing protagonist, who ultimately undergoes a symbolic look-ectomy—a move that’s traditionally a cliché but is, as wielded by Sorrentino, rather startling. And it has a plot: Spurred by the looming death of his errant father, John goes from Ireland to America, soon hopping from NYC to New Mexico to Utah and elsewhere to find an Auschwitz guard.
Even with the heavy subject matter, the goal is never important, even sucking into its orbit Judd Hirsch as a longtime Nazi hunter. Journey trumps destination, with pit stops that range from the absurd to the strangely moving, including a boy who does a boffo rendition of the Talking Heads title song. The quirky-sad tone is a problem, although there’s still no film I can think of that looks or feels quite like this one. Sorrentino has few grand things to say about America—Obama and Palin are spied on background hotel TVs, but that’s about it—and hopefully we can agree that’s a good thing.