Film One of the best sketches to emanate from 80s comedy show The Mary Whitehouse Experience featured Rob Newman dolled up as Robert Smith from The Cure singing nursery rhymes or upbeat songs like Tie Me Kangeroo Down Sport attempting to parody the bands sudden lurch into happy material with Friday I'm Love. In on the joke, Smith himself later appeared to sing "The Sun Has Got His Hat On" but I always wondered what would happen if they'd stretched the joke to show the otherwise depressive Smith in more mundane settings, such as on a date or at the bank.
Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place initially seems as though it’s going to be a big screen version of that very idea. Cheyenne (Sean Penn) is a washed up 80s rock star who the director says is heavily influence by Smith who stumbles about Dublin seemingly without purpose. Dressed all in black, alabaster make-up contrasted by rouge lipstick, his fringe annoyingly falling across his face so that he has to blow it away from his eyes every few seconds, his eyes fixed ahead when they’re not covered by sun-glassed, he looks like an animated cut-out from Smash Hits Magazine, attracting stares from the locals, even those who don’t recognise him from his pop career.
With deadpan wit, Sorrentino places this figure in the antiseptic surroundings of shopping malls and suburban streets, approaching each action like an alien whose never had to buy pizza in a supermarket before, his monotone whisper just clear enough for him to function in a world that his childlike nature keeps him at odds with. It’s only in the company of people he’s familiar with like Mary, the daughter of a band mate (Eve Hewson) and his wife Jane (Frances McDormand) that he comes out of his shell a bit, largely because they force him to, the latter challenging him to ball games in the empty swimming pool in the grounds of him mansion.
As deliberately entertaining as this opening half hour is, there’s always a nagging sense that like his title character, writer and director Sorrentino isn’t entirely sure what to do next and the material won’t stretch much beyond showing us the incongruous sight of Cheyenne playing the stock market or nibbling through a pizza in a dining room below a neon sign that says “cuisine”. But then the film makes a magnificent leap which takes Cheyenne and us on a surprising and rather poignant journey which works best if the viewer knows as little about beforehand as possible. Ignore the synopses if you can. You’ll thank me.
What we can say is that this is strangely a comedy drama about guilt. Cheyenne’s guilt about a fan’s reaction turned sour, astonishingly enunciated by Penn in one of the film's key scenes, the guilt of not living up to his parent’s expectations, of finding oneself at odds with society’s expectations. But also for various reasons, the guilt of history and the extent to which humiliations inflicted and carried should be experienced and re-experienced across a life and whether it’s ever possible to let go. Cheyenne’s own baggage is given physical manifestation throughout, first as a shopping trolly then as a case on wheels, forever dragged along behind.
Sean Penn dissolves into personality of Cheyenne, and the funniest moments are when he allows this porcelain visage to shatter into more human expressions. In Thomas Vinterberg’s underrated futuristic meditation It’s All About Love, Penn plays a man who is medically incapable of living on land, spending his entire life orbiting the planet by plane. Cheyenne’s feet are on terra firm but his mind is elsewhere and it’s to Penn’s credit that it never becomes the exaggerated parody of Newman’s Smith. He remains grounded enough and likeable enough for people to strangely warm to him, in spite of his appearance.
In a role which was written for her, McDormand catches the tone that’s required for the kind of woman who’d logically be wife to this kind of man, part groupie, part mother figure. How they became involved is never quite explained, but it’s clear she treats life with him as kind of fantasy adventure, her supplementary career as a fire fighter providing a much needed dose of reality. Another of my favourite but generally underused actors, Kerry Condon, appears in a small but pivotal role and provides some of the best screen tears I’ve seen a long time, her entire body distended and shaking.
As the title suggests, the other remarkable element of This Must Be The Place is the music of David Byrne and the Talking Heads which pulses from radios, televisions and in shopping malls throughout both in their original form and covered by other bands. Byrne himself wanders in at the halfway point playing a version of himself who’s an old friend and mentor to Cheyanne in a unforgettable incident in an old theatre, whose interior is crumbling in tandem with Penn's pop star’s personality. Unsurprisingly its Byrne’s music which aids in his psychological recovery and listening again to Little Creatures as I write, I can absolutely understand why.
I was lucky enough to be invited to a preview screening of This Must Be The Place at FACT Liverpool this morning.
They'll be screening it as part of the Slackers Club at 9pm on Wednesday 28th March.
Then they will be showing the film on general release from Friday 13th April.