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This Must Be the Place (The Weinstein Company, R)

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theotherson 75I have no idea how you will feel about this movie. I’m not 100% sure I know how I feel about it.

 

thismustbetheplace 500

In many ways, modern film criticism tends to come down to a binary, black-and-white system of thumbs up or thumbs down. Some films easily fit into one category or the other. Skyfall is an obvious thumbs up; Silent Hill Revelation 3D is an obvious thumbs down. Most movies, however, exist in a gray area in between. Do I recommend Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter? I don’t know. There’s no real reason to recommend it, but no reason to be actively against it. Then, every once in a while you get a movie like This Must Be the Place, which completely defies all attempts to categorize it. It is such a strange movie that I could never feel comfortable recommending it, even to my close friends. I have no idea how they would feel about it. I’m not 100% sure I know how I feel about it.

This Must Be the Place stars Sean Penn as an aged goth rocker named Cheyenne who has retired, and now lives in Dublin with his wife, played by the always reliable Frances McDormand. He still dresses like a character from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but he hasn’t held a guitar in years. He gets word from America that his father is dying. Being afraid of flying, and having not spoken to his father in 30 years, this news sends Cheyenne on one of those ever-reliable journeys that is both literal and metaphorical, in which he learns a little about his father and a lot about himself, and finds some kind of peace with his life. (If that last sentence was nauseating to read, I can assure you it was far worse to write.)

I’ll be frank: For the first 20 minutes or so, I was in awe of just how much of a train wreck I was witnessing. I felt like I had stumbled into some kind of disaster in which Sean Penn was playing Tommy Wiseau in an artsy, independent character drama. I think it’s important to focus on Penn’s performance, because in a lot of ways it is the movie, and my reaction to him mirrored my reaction to the movie. At first, I didn’t know what the fuck he was doing, but I was having fun watching him do it. Then, about 30 minutes in, I realized that the comedy in Penn’s performance was intentional. This was pretty radical; I don’t know if Sean Penn has cracked a smile since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The comedy allowed me to settle with his performance and enjoy what he was doing. Eventually, I actually got invested in his character. I don’t know if it’s a great performance or a terrible one, but it ended up working in some crazy way.

I should mention that this film is beautiful to look at. It was made by the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, and shot by his collaborator, Luca Bigazzi. Italian filmmakers have a tendency to create beautiful imagery, even in films that would normally look very mundane. The cinematography helped keep me on board in some of the sequences I normally would have tuned out for.

This Must Be the Place is high on quirk, which is a risky thing for me. As far as I’m concerned, a little quirk goes a long way, often for too long. In many ways, this is a film I should not like. But it is unique, and I will always have a certain affection for films that feel unlike every other movie. This Must Be the Place often feels like it is right on the brink of losing control, but as it played out, I just got involved in whatever strange journey the movie was taking me on. So in the end, I guess I liked it—but I’m not sure if anyone else will. | Sean Lass

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