Posted December 9, 2012 by William Dunmyer in Avant-Garde

This Must be the Place: Avant-Garde Mash-Up that Doesn’t Work

I’ll give Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino one thing: he’s got guts. He doesn’t care one iota about commercial success or popularity. All he cares about is bringing his artistic vision to the screen.

With “Il Divo” (winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2008) and now his follow-up, the English-language “This Must be the Place,” starring Sean Penn in a performance somewhat inspired by Ozzy Osbourne, you can feel Sorrentino’s fearless commitment to his art. I love his single-minded devotion to his art, but I don’t think his art is very good.

Sorrentino’s work is very high-concept. It sounds good when it’s described, but the final product is missing something. As is the case with any high-concept film, the first 30 minutes of “This Must be the Place” are exhilarating, while the viewer is absorbing the concept. But after about 45 minutes, a viewer needs more than a concept.

That’s the big difference between shorts and feature films, I’d say. Shorts can exist at the concept level; features must go beyond that. It’s like going on a date with someone very good-looking. The first 30 minutes are fantastic because you’re still absorbing the beauty. After 30 minutes, your focus shifts to what he or she is saying — and most of the time you’re let down. In most cases, beauty is not enough to carry a 90-minute experience. Neither is concept.

Sorrentino’s actors are not so much playing characters as delivering concepts. They’re vehicles for the filmmaker’s ideas — sort of hollow. After 30 minutes, the audience needs to feel the insides of the characters to stay interested in them. Sorrentino doesn’t go to this level. That’s why so far he’s not become a great artist for the feature-film medium.


Sean Penn here plays a very famous, wealthy, and quirky American rock star, similar in some ways to Ozzy Osbourne. We meet him when he’s in retirement, living in a gigantic home with his wife (Frances McDormand) in a remote area of either England or Ireland. He walks around his little town at a glacial pace pulling a shopping cart behind him, like a 90-year-old woman. He seems to move in slow motion, but his mind is sound. In fact, most of his observations are quite acute.

He is constantly decked out in heavy facial make-up, including bright red lipstick, a cross between a drag queen, a goth rocker, and an old woman playing slot machines in a backwoods casino. Seeing Sean Penn in full-tilt gender-bending regalia is quite disorienting — and very cool. Yet another fearless performance from Penn.

Initially you think the film is going to be a celebration of this kooky character. But halfway through it completely switches gears. Penn’s father dies, and he travels alone to New York for the funeral. By way of flashbacks, we learn about his alienation from his Orthodox Jewish family. We also learn that his father was a Holocaust survivor who spent years trying to hunt down a Nazi official who tormented him.

Penn, completely inexplicably, decides to pick up where his father left off and hunt down the Nazi. He teams up with a veteran Nazi hunter (Judd Hirsch), and this odd couple goes out to heartland America to pursue clues to the Nazi’s whereabouts. All the while, the soundtrack immerses you in 1980s New Wave music, such as the Talking Heads song, “This Must be the Place,” which inexplicably gives the film its title.

Watching Penn’s lovable, drug-addled goth drag queen try to toughen up and become a Nazi hunter is amusing. But it’s so ridiculous that the film becomes just shallow absurdism. None of it really means anything because Sorrentino just seems interested in making his characters do oddball things. When writers on long-running TV shows run out of ideas, they often “jump the shark,” throwing random shock-value elements into the script.

All through the second half of “This Must be the Place,” I felt Sorrentino was jumping the shark, trying to be ever more outlandish and put his characters in weirder situations and cultural contexts. Let’s put him in an Orthodox synagogue; isn’t that funny? Now let’s put him in a small town in the Bible Belt talking to Pentecostal Christians. Now let’s watch him interact with rednecks and learn to use a gun!

None of it really made sense after a while. Sorrentino probably would say that he never intended the project to “make sense” in the tradition of narrative cinema. (“Stop Making Sense” was after all the title of the Talking Heads’ legendary concert movie, and the Talking Heads are a major touchstone for the film.)

I certainly don’t think all films have to make sense in the traditional manner. I’m a big champion of the avant-garde. But “This Must be the Place” doesn’t work as either a narrative film or an avant-garde one. Sorrentino clearly is a child of the avant-garde, but he also has some major interest in traditional cinema. It seems like he couldn’t decide which direction to go in, and he tried to do both. It doesn’t come together.

By the end, the Penn character seemed completely unreal to me, and his quest for Nazis ridiculous. It’s a little disturbing that the Holocaust theme would be treated so cavalierly, I would also say.

But it also must be stated that there are many things about the film that do work, especially Penn’s engaging performance. If I had read a draft of the screenplay, I would have recommended that Sorrentino scrap the Nazi hunting and focus in on this wacky, interesting character.

What must it be like to be super-rich, super-famous, a complete oddball, a hero to millions, and a laughingstock to other millions? Weave flashbacks into the film of the man’s childhood. What must it be like to break away so completely from your family’s charted path? Does the Jewish aspect alter anything? Do his elders make him feel like a traitor to the Jewish race? Do they call him a Gentile? This is a film I’d like to see, and I’d like to see Sean Penn star in it.

If Sorrentino’s response is that he wants to do something more avant-garde, my reply would be a question: What is your avant-garde idea for the project? It doesn’t come through in the screenplay. Once you figure that out, then do another draft pushing more firmly in that direction.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.