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'This Must Be the Place': Sean Penn goes on a weird, worthwhile ride

This Must Be the Place (R) (118 min.) — Paolo Sorrentino's movie is a shambling mess, which is kind of a compliment since it perfectly mirrors its central character, an aging goth rocker named Cheyenne. This Must Be the Place is a movie existing in a zonked-out realm where reality smashes head-on with a train-wreck hero too strange to be real, unless you're the love child of Ozzy Osbourne and the Cure's Robert Smith.

The chief pleasure here is Sean Penn's unbridled eccentricity as Cheyenne, surely the nuttiest role of his career, as it would be with almost any actor. Beneath a raven-black fright wig, behind androgynous mascara and lipstick, Penn's is an unforgettable performance, either for its sublime weirdness or stubborn annoyances, take your pick.

Retired from show biz, Cheyenne lives in Dublin, Ireland, self-exiled and rich from royalties. Eventually we'll learn what drove him there, and it might make another movie entirely. But it's left as a telling facet of Cheyenne's personality, tossed aside when Sorrentino shoves him out of his castle and into the real world again, for a reason that sounds idiotic yet works.

Cheyenne hasn't spoken with his father in decades, and when the old man dies the son returns to the U.S. as a formality. He knew his father was a Holocaust survivor but not the man's lifelong mission to track down an Auschwitz prison guard who once humiliated him. Cheyenne adopts the mission as his own, becoming a new avenging angel seemingly incapable of harming anyone besides himself. So what is he doing, driving cross-country packing a freshly purchased hog-leg pistol?

This Must Be the Place answers that question at its own loopy pace, with Penn's brain-addled Candide uncovering more curiosities along the way.

What's the deal with Cheyenne and his wife (Frances McDormand), who behaves more like an older sister than a mate? How much can a vainglorious Nazi hunter (Judd Hirsch) be trusted to help? What does Talking Heads frontman David Byrne have to do with all this, except remind viewers that Sorrentino's movie shares its trippy, non sequitur DNA with Byrne's own True Stories?

Like most road trips, the fun ultimately lies in the journey more than the destination. But what a long, strange trip it turns out to be. This Must Be the Place feels like a cult movie waiting to happen, or perhaps a mad experiment gone wrong. Either way, it's worth watching Penn, perhaps unwittingly, taking Jeff Spicoli to the burned-out end we might have guessed for him back at Ridgemont High. (Veterans 24 in Tampa) B

Steve Persall, Times movie critic

'This Must Be the Place': Sean Penn goes on a weird, worthwhile ride 11/14/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 14, 2012 10:27am]
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