You're either going to love This Must be the Place or you're going to hate it completely. And even if you love it, you still might question your love's sincerity. The whole enterprise practically dares you to find worth within its almost farcical main plot, but if that doesn't work, it also earns itself a judgmental reprieve by showcasing one of the strangest, most confusingly hysterical performances in recent memory. People's appreciation for this film will likely have a direct correlation with how much they can stand Napoleon Dynamite.
This Must be the Place is easily the better film, however, if only because it actually does have a plot, and an occasionally interesting one at that. The film's overly long first act almost plays like a separate mini-movie introducing aging pop star Cheyenne and his domestic situation along with his crippling boredom. I complain that this opening act is too long, but it's probably the film's best section, especially if you're only in it for awesome Sean Penn action. It's pretty much all inconsequential hilarity.
Once Cheyenne finally gets to New York to bury his father, the whole Nazi Hunter plot kicks off a somewhat flaccid and relaxed road movie as Cheyenne slowly pinpoints the Nazi's location. (Though the film takes a quick break for a hilarious conversation between an emotionally distraught Cheyenne and an awkwardly shoved-in David Byrne which probably should have been cut had it not contained one of the film's few open pieces of exposition.) The film has none of the joking insanity its one-sentence plot synopsis teases, but Sean Penn renders any additional wackiness unnecessary anyway.
This character has to be seen to be believed. Even if you've looked at a clip or two, you haven't seen the outer edges of Sean Penn's performance. The movie gets an automatic recommendation simply as an unmissable event, one of those performances that makes narrative quality completely irrelevant. It's an indie quirk thing to have an aging Robert Smith clone as a film protagonist. But it's a special kind of insane to play him as a mildly retarded old woman.
Sean Penn's a great actor, but he has a weakness for gimmicky Oscar baiting performances. Here he reaches along those lines but picks up something gloriously strange instead, yet still gives it the same dedication and intensity he's known for. You basically haven't lived cinematically until you've seen Cheyenne suddenly yell at someone like a real life Pee-Wee Herman.
Things grow even more strange when we meet Frances McDormand as Cheyenne's aging but spry hippie wife, Jane. Seeing them together it quickly becomes clear that not only is Sean Penn playing an old lady, but he's playing her as an old lesbian in a 35 year old same-sex marriage. Even more specific, Frances McDormand is the butch in the relationship while he's the pretty, more girly one. I don't only get this lesbian impression solely from his hair, his makeup, his voice and his fierce old woman's reading glasses. I'm also considering the couple's brief sex scene in which Cheyenne goes down on Jane until she climaxes, then emerges from under the covers and goes to sleep with no orgasm for himself.
If you can manage to pull your eyes off Sean Penn long enough, the film also offers a truly amazing performance by Judd Hirsch as the film's real Nazi hunter. Hirsch is such a badass in this film that he basically only delivers comedy lines and yet still kind of scares the shit out of you. If you need a second reason to see the film, let him be it. If you need a third, there's also a really great one-scene stop for Harry Dean Stanton both longer and funnier than his brief Avengers cameo.
Unfortunately, the problems in This Must be the Place block it from achieving anything more than great novelty. At just under two hours, the film is way too long, an issue exacerbated by its episodic nature and intentionally slow pacing. But more than that, the film has disorienting tonal issues. The comedy seems obvious enough, but then an occasional scene or sequence will include enough pathos to confuse the audience as to whether or not everything humorous was actually meant to be serious instead. This is particularly true of its two endings, one of which betrays the film's tone (yet almost seems worth it) while the other betrays its main character. It's just not possible to get serious about the Holocaust with a character as absurd as Cheyenne, but the film goes for it anyway.
This Must be the Place also has a real problem offering narrative information. I left the theatre still unsure about a couple character connections that the film's ending treated as obvious. Exposition has become something of a dirty word, which means films with intellectual aspirations avoid it as much as possible despite its inherent importance. Sometimes this gives us interesting puzzles to unlock after the film or upon repeat viewings. But sometimes films get too vague for their own good, and This Must be the Place suffers from this problem. The first act in particular introduces way too many unexplained elements at once, only to explain them too late or not clearly enough for idiots like me to pick up on.
But again, this film's quality has little to do with whether or not you should see it. Whenever it opens in America (pretty much every other country has already seen it) you owe it to yourself. Luckily, This Must be the Place is better than it probably deserves to be. It's total indie pandering, but if a film is determined to pander to the indie scene, I infinitely prefer it fail like this film than succeed like another Little Miss Sunshine. Quirkiness is an easy affectation to pull off, which is why we often distrust it. But weirdness requires talent. This isn't really a weird film, but Sean Penn is weird as fuck in it. And since he happens to be in every scene, is there really a difference?