Wednesday, May 9, 2012

This Must Be the Place

Even before the Cannes line-up had been seen This Must Be the Place cemented its place as the odd duck of the festival. The juxtaposition of Sean Penn dressed up in flamboyant gothic attire with an ostensibly serious storyline involving the holocaust had critics speculating less as to whether Sorrentino had gone off the rails and more as to what extent he'd gone off the rails. It's rather unfortunate then, that the finished product is not a brightly burning film maudit but rather a carefully composed and hollow film that mashes together the holy idiot movie and the road trip movie in a manner uncomfortably reminiscent of Forrest Gump.

Much of the early going achieves the delightful wonkiness that Sorrentino seems to have been shooting for. The combination of bright colours and snarky deadpan humour works delightfully - even more so when he fills his flattened frames with quasi-surrealist images ( A Goose! Acting like a guard dog! In a Kitchen!). But then the narrative comes into view and it becomes clear that Sorrentino's film is an attempt to both take the pulse of modern America and tackle the the question of what the holocaust means to those who didn't experience it.

It's a tall order and he isn't even close to being able to tackle it - instead of any lingering exploration of the topics at hand he relies on Penn's Cheyenne to shoot off isolated, pithy nuggets of wisdom at the broadest stereotypes imaginable. "The trouble with people," Cheyenne muses to a single mother and waitress, "is that they give up dreaming of what might be and accept what is." It's more meaningful than Gump's truly inane comments about boxes of chocolates but it's never followed up with anything that gives it any more meaning then it might have in some book entitled Wise Words for Daily Living. Given this the film's apparent awareness that its roadside characters are ridiculously broad seems less like the clever use of representative archetypes and more like special pleading for featuring straight-talking, honour-bound Texan businessmen and the like.

This glib seriousness is never more harmful then when it infects Cheyenne himself. It's annoying enough that Sorrentino insists Cheyenne's get-up is nothing more than the remnants of adolescant posing but it’s downright frustrating to see something as horrifying and oft-thought about as the holocaust reduced to yet another opportunity for folksy wisdom. When Cheyenne finally catches up with his father's old Nazi tormenter Sorrentino makes a blunt appeal for retributive justice with no more than a monologue skewering the idea of prison-camp guards as anything other than fully willing collaborators (an idea I'm more than open to) and one of Cheyenne's tossed-off catchphrases.

However sure Sorrentino may be about all of this his subjects deserve far better than self-consciously cool posturing and fortune cookie slogans. Hopefully next time he gets a smarter screenwriter or doubles down on the geese.

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