EXPECTATIONS: I realized recently that Sean Penn and Tom Cruise are very similar figures, almost doppelgänger-eque in terms of public persona. Both men rose to popularity around the same time, with both getting their first real break in 1981's Taps. Both are around the same caliber of talent. For every argument you could make that Penn is the better of the two, there's a counter-example for Cruise's side. Both men have had very public divorces, and they've both shown poor impulse control in the past. (Though in Tom Cruise's defense, he didn't float around a flooded area brandishing a shotgun.)
The difference between these two men is this: a lot of people really hate Sean Penn, but no one ever talks about it. (Editor's Note: I'm just going to leave this here to point out how WRONG you are! -GD) Shitting on Tom Cruise is like a national pastime by this point, but I am shocked at how many people I meet who loathe Spicoli. It's like a curveball that comes out of nowhere whenever I mention Sweet and Lowdown, which is all the time. So now that Tom Cruise has gotten people to like him by being silly weird instead of creepy weird, I wonder if Sean Penn's trying to do the same. More importantly, I wonder if getting all dressed up like The Cure is the best way to go about it.
REALITY: Hey, all you NaNoWriMo-ites out there. (NaNos? Nannys? What do they call themselves? Whatever it is, I bet it makes me angry.) Uncle Vargo's got some writing tips for you. #1: Your self-insert character is a horrible douche and no one likes him, you should really consider what that says about you. #2: Whatever occultish/mythical/video game figure your self-insert is boning, it's been done before, and probably in a marginally less creepy manner. Most important, though is #3: Metaphors can be hard things. A good metaphor should be visible enough that most of the audience can pick up on it if they're paying the least bit of attention, but not so obvious that it yells at the audience "This is a metaphor!! Look at it!" This Must be the Place is built of prime examples of the good kind. (Tip #4: Just stop. You are hurting literature.)
A timeless romance.
This Must Be The Place follows Cheyenne (Penn), a retired rock star living in Dublin with his incredibly understanding wife (Frances McDormand). Cheyenne leads a peaceful but boring life, a fact that Penn makes clear from the first second we watch him blow his hair out of his face. He plays handball in a pool that never got filled, wanders aimlessly through grocery stores, and has coffee with his young goth friend Mary (Eve Hewson). I won't dwell too much on Mary - she's rather incidental to the story - but I want to observe what a smart bit of casting it is to have Bono's daughter, a girl who has spent her entire life around weird and cranky rock stars, play this part.
Anyway, when Cheyenne learns of his estranged father's death, he travels to America and, without really knowing why, he takes up the quest his father left behind: Hunting down the Nazi prison guard who humiliated him at Auschwitz. Before he does that, though, he pays a brief visit to the man who wrote the song the film is named after, his friend David Byrne of Talking Heads (David Byrne of Talking Heads, in another superb bit of casting.)
So here we have a film where Sean Penn, dressed in pseudo-drag, drives a Dodge Ram across America hunting a Nazi with music by David Byrne. That should really be my entire review, right there. That should be enough to get you to buy a ticket. However, the film isn't content to rest on its concept. This is where those metaphors I mentioned earlier come into play. The film is all about guilt, both from a historical and a personal point of view. Cheyenne has a lot of baggage, both literal and metaphorical. He's constantly dragging something behind him, either a grocery cart or luggage with wheels. Sometimes he drops it, but he always picks it up again.
The film is also beautifully and cleverly shot so that oftentimes we see literal tethers connecting Cheyenne to something, sometimes the audience. One of the best shots in the entire film happens when Cheyenne picks up the phone to learn of his father's death. It's a corded rotary phone, which is not something anyone should have in 2012. The phone has a cord so that we can get a shot of the phone cord stretching as far as it can go, literally coming out from the audience's point of view. By that point, the film has connected us with Cheyenne.
A questionable friendship.The meanings aren't subtle, so Sean Penn must be. It's a rule with Sean Penn films that at some point he pretty much looks at the camera and says "Nominate me now!" Here we have a film that almost does that, then decides not to let him. It's a good thing, too, because it allows Penn to disappear into this bizarre character with a look of slight confusion and a tendency to mumble. Cheyenne reminds me of Edward Scissorhands, because it's the kind of role young Tim Burton would have young Johnny Depp play.
Fortunately for us, Penn brings a sense of sincerity to the weirdness. Whereas lesser actors would play up the quirkiness of the character for the sake of quirkiness, Penn plays Cheyenne like he's always been this way. There are reasons he's this way, and he doesn't see anything weird about it, nor does anyone else, seemingly. The best parts of the film come from Cheyenne's bizarre conversations with other people he meets along his journey, none of whom really ask why he's in a woman's jacket or lipstick. Everyone gets it, David Byrne gets it, and Sean Penn really gets it, which is why this is one of his best performances.
The reason people don't like Penn as much as they do Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp is that he's just not as likable as those guys. In fact, Sean Penn is kind of an asshole. However, the interesting thing about this is that Sean Penn genuinely does not give a crap what you or I think of him. So when he makes films that challenge the public's perception of him, like This Must Be The Place, he does it because he wants to, not because he's begging for people to love him. Sean Penn doesn't care, and that makes him all the better for it.
MINORITY REPORT: Wow, it's like Everything Is Illuminated in reverse with Sean Penn playing his ex Madonna. What is going on here, and why haven't I seen it? - Sean "Keanu Grieves" Hanson
It's true. Grimace is human. God help us, we did our best for him.
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