It’s almost jarring to the eye when viewers first catch a glimpse of Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place, a defiantly oddball road movie that gradually develops an unassuming charm.
Penn fully transforms into his role as a washed-up rock star who wears goth hair and makeup, from his cosmetic appearance to his stiffened posture and gait, to an effeminate voice and array of melancholy facial expressions.
His eccentric performance helps bring an unassuming charm to this low-key drama about redemption, arrested development and life on the fringes of fame.
Penn plays Cheyenne, who lives in Dublin and enjoys the luxuries of his former glory along with his free-spirited wife (Frances McDormand) but is awkward in social settings.
As the film unfolds, it’s clear that Cheyenne’s androgynous exterior is masking an inner vulnerability that stems from guilt and a troubled past.
Specifically, Cheyenne is forced to deal with the death of his estranged father, which leads him out of reclusion to New York, where he meets with a Nazi hunter (Judd Hirsch) and embarks on a cross-country odyssey to help finish his father’s mission to eradicate Nazis across the United States, meeting plenty of strange characters along the way.
At its core, the film, which marks the English-language debut of director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo), is a fascinating character study that goes beyond simple quirks and mannerisms.
The eclectic supporting cast includes former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, who plays himself in an extended cameo and even performs an extended musical interlude. He also collaborated on several songs on the soundtrack.
The evocative if mildly pretentious script is deliberately paced and overloaded with idiosyncrasies, and sometimes the shifts in tone leave a disjointed feeling. Like its complex central character, it takes a while to warm up to the film as a whole, and it’s certainly not for all tastes.
Still, Penn generates sympathy for Cheyenne and the film eventually turns into a bittersweet yet funny quest for self-discovery that’s at least amusing if not relatable.
Based on its premise alone, for those seeking refuge from formulaic blockbusters and Hollywood crowd-pleasers, this is indeed the place.
Rated R, 118 minutes.