Like a lot of thrifty New Orleans music nerds, I recently stumbled across an opportunity to see goth legends The Cure perform for cheap at my alma mater’s lake shore campus. It was a wonderful experience that unfortunately inspired me to embark on a disappointing one immediately after. I’ve been curious about the Sean Penn indie dramedy This Must Be the Place since it was first released four years ago and the option of it conveniently streaming on Netflix combined with my post-bargain bin Cure show glow to finally push me into pulling the trigger. The gun backfired. On paper, a movie starring an aging Sean Penn as a Robert Smith stand-in on a quest to murder his father’s concentration camp Nazi tormentor sounds fascinating, if not mind-blowingly incredible. Throw in some cameos from the always-welcome David Byrne & Harry Dean Stanton (with only the former portraying himself, unfortunately) and you have a must-see proposition. Like a lot of The Cure lyrics will explain to you, though, the reality is a much gloomier, more depressing experience than that romantic ideal. This Must Be the Place is one of those thorough letdowns that teases you with all the puzzle pieces required to make a great film, but leaves them messily scattered across the kitchen table, never bothering to carefully slap them together.
It’s possible the most important missing or ill-fitting piece in this particular production is Sean Penn’s lead performance. Although Penn is dressed in Robert Smith’s hairspray, make-up, and legacy, he plays the part with the quietly obnoxious energy he brought to the ill-advised mental handicap melodrama I am Sam. Every weird, lispy, half deaf sound Penn makes in this film is a singularly bizarre choice that just doesn’t pay off. The most enjoyable moment in his performance is the opening credits sequence of him wordlessly applying make-up in a mirror. It’s all downhill from there. The performance is even more baffling if you’re familiar with the real Robert Smith’s speaking voice. In interviews the aging goth rocker sounds like a perfectly normal British man, just as he always has. Penn instead sounds like David Sedaris made faint by a bout with pneumonia. He gives a delicately odd, grandmotherly performance that’s arrestingly bizarre, but never recommendable the same way, say a Nic Cage train wreck might’ve been. There’s no pleasure to be had in it, only confusion.
The real shame is that Penn’s distinct awfulness feels completely out of sync with what everyone else is doing on camera. As mentioned, Harry Dean Stanton & David Byrne are their usual wonderful selves in trumped up cameo roles that serve as desperately needed breaths of fresh air in a film that could use a little more charisma along the same lines. Byrne is especially welcome here, bringing some much-appreciated Lynchian energy into a scene where plays a bizarre musical instrument of his own invention an an entirely unearned, but pleasant moment when he sings the Talking Heads song the film borrows its title from. Frances McDormand is also wonderful as always, playing an entirely thankless role as Not Robert Smith’s divinely patient wife whom he doesn’t deserve. Only Penn stands out as a sore thumb annoyance here and a lot of the film’s faults lie squarely on his apparently incapable shoulders.
It’s really no wonder this film bombed so miserably at the box office, but I guess it’s not entirely Penn’s fault that it failed to find an audience. Much like its soft-spoken weirdo protagonist, This Must Be the Place is entirely unsure of itself. It floats between so many tones & genres that it’s difficult to pin down exactly why it feels so off other than it has no idea what it’s doing or what it wants to be from minute to minute. This is a first draft work in need of a severe revision, either swinging hard to the character-based indie dramedy or the Nazi-hunter revenge thriller directions it flirts with or, hell, swinging to both. It instead hovers like a Ouija board reader hesitating to decide on a path. There’s some really interesting imagery on display, finding surreal details in unlikely sources like an above ground swimming pool, a buffalo, and a naked old man roaming the desert. There’s also some interesting sources of internal conflict, like Penn’s retired musician’s guilty over two dedicated fans’ suicides or his quest to avenge the tormentor of a father who disowned him due to his gender androgyny.
These individual pieces, again, never amount to a cohesive whole. Even if they did, though, Penn’s choices in his lead performance might’ve been enough to sink the ship on their own. Everything feels half-cooked & out of place here, just as self-opposed as Penn’s Robert Smith image vs. his non-Robert Smith demeanor. I’d even argue that the parenthetical half of the title of its Talking Heads source material, “Naive Melody”, would’ve made for a better choice in moniker. Everything at play is just exactly off & ill-advised in that way, except maybe David Byrne. He can do no wrong.