Sean Penn takes a bizarre road trip in 'This Must Be the Place'
En route he meets an assortment of types played by Judd Hirsch, Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton, Joyce Van Patten, and David Byrne as David Byrne. Place recalls in some respects the strained, condescendingly quirky Americana Exotica representation of Byrne's only directorial feature, 1986's True Stories. It, too, is one big private art project, with gratuitous "surreal" moments that Sorrentino's undeniable skill as a filmmaker (and Luca Bigazzi's as his inventive cinematographer) somehow render less sore-thumb inorganic than they ought to be.
But why are we watching this character, in this scenario? Both grab attention, but they never really connect. You could explain the irrelevancy and at least partial injustice in the ancient Nazi quarry's final appearance if this movie turned out to be about forgiveness rather than vengeance — but then it isn't really about either. In the end Penn's character goes through a transformation that works as a final visual grace note, but doesn't make any deeper sense given a couple seconds' thought. Was being Cheyenne just a phase our hero had to go through? For 35 years or so?
This Must Be the Place is also an inexplicable digression, all the more so for costing 28 million dollars it will never remotely make back. Penn and Sorrentino bring all their considerable dedication to it, but wandering lost between poignance and oddity, their movie never locates the "home" of the titular Talking Heads song. It's a deluxe but strange, pointless vacation they didn't need to go on, let alone share.
THIS MUST BE THE PLACE opens Fri/9 in Bay Area theaters.