Trying to catalog the bad choices in "This Must Be the Place" is like trying to trace the slime trails at a slug orgy. It features a woefully miscast Sean Penn in the most monotonous performance of his career as Cheyenne, an aging former rock star turned recluse who is detached to the point of autism. His pallid Goth makeup, painfully shy demeanor and wild ink-black mane -- his hair isn't teased, it's tormented -- suggest a cross between the Cure's Robert Smith and Edward Scissorhands.
Hiding from taxes, and life, in his Dublin mansion, he spends his time checking his stocks and playing matchmaker for his teenaged best friend, Mary (Bono's daughter Eve Hewson). Adrift, he's ripe for a zany road-movie adventure. But that is not kooky enough for Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, who piles on whimsy with a trowel. After arriving in New York City too late to comfort his dying father, Cheyenne sets out to locate the elusive German officer who humiliated the old man during World War II. Yes, it's another Goth Nazi-hunter comedy.
The trail takes him to Michigan, New Mexico and Utah, where he encounters a knick-knack hoarding schoolteacher (Joyce Van Patten), a harried but kindly single mom (Kerry Condon), gun nuts, a bison on a porch, an adult who dresses like Batman and the world's largest pistachio. You know, all those things that to a visiting European filmmaker say "America." These quirky encounters, odd without being interesting, don't lend the picture momentum. It just lurches or skips ahead, as if making a movie was a matter of collecting so many View-Master slides.
With its overbearing eccentricity, rib-nudging irony and confusion of tones, everything in the film is either underdeveloped or overstated. There are small eruptions of interest. David Byrne pops up as himself to deliver a blazing concert rendition of the title song, and to introduce his pneumatic/acoustic Play the Building keyboard, currently installed at Aria in the Minneapolis Warehouse District. But too many other promising opportunities, such as Harry Dean Stanton's inconsequential cameo, are wasted. Whenever he's anxious, Cheyenne recites his mantra in a sing-song monotone: "Something's not quite right here. I don't know exactly what it is, but something ..." Actually, it's pretty much everything.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186