With this tale of an eccentric rock star cut off from the world, Paolo Sorrentino joins the gang of European auteurs, from Antonioni to Wenders, who have followed success at home with a road trip to the States. For the director of the superb Il Divo (2008) and The Consequences of Love (2004), it’s a bumpy ride of stalls and diversions. He begins with a promising deadpan portrait of Cheyenne (brilliant, surprising Sean Penn), a US rocker in exile in Ireland, but images and ideas part company when the film travels to the USA and falls in thrall to hackneyed visions of the country. This is a wry and affecting film, but it has a sluggish momentum compared to the carnival of Il Divo.
Cheyenne hasn’t touched a guitar in years and hides behind a bush of black hair and a mask of make-up. He lives in Dublin with his wife (Frances McDormand) and exists in a state of amiable depression. He hangs out with unlikely friends – a young goth woman, a boorish office worker – and reacts with confusion to the modern world, at one point gnomically asking in a slow, slurring, weird voice: ‘Why is Lady Gaga?’ The illness of his father takes him back to New York and propels him across country to find an elderly Nazi who wronged his dad during the war.
Sorrentino’s films are visual delights, and there’s a lot to savour here. But too often we’re left with a carefully framed shot or travelling camera in search of an idea. The same can be said of the film’s Nazi-hunter storyline – it feels like an excuse to get Cheyenne out on the road. This Must Be The Place is always curious and imaginative but it’s never better than its scenes in Dublin, and you’re left with the feeling that Sorrentino’s eccentric story and daring style masks just another movie about the healing powers of the road.