The Talking Heads’ This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) is one of the best songs of their album Speaking in Tongues, and its live rendition one of the many highlights of Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s magnificent film about the Heads’ December 1983 concert at The Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. But I came this close to turning all my Talking Heads and David Byrne CDs into coasters after hearing it over and over and over and over again in at least a dozen different renditions in Paolo Sorrentino’s long, dull, pretentious and inadequately titled This Must Be the Place.
In one of the worst, most annoying performances of his acting career, Sean Penn stars as Cheyenne, an aging Goth rock star who retired from the scene 30 years ago after his songs inspired two kids to commit suicide. Speaking in a whiny, childish, nails-scraping-chalkboard voice and wearing a hairdo and makeup that is equal parts The Cure’s Robert Smith and Edward Scissorhands, Cheyenne refuses to grow up. He leads a rather dull, humdrum existence in his Dublin mansion married to a firefighter (Frances McDormand in the kind of nurturing role she perfected in “Fargo”) and plays matchmaker to a teenage Goth friend (Eve Hewson, Bono’s daughter) whose mother won’t accept the fact that her son has left her for good. If he is not dragging a shopping cart around while being harassed by fans, he plays handball with his wife in the empty swimming pool behind his mansion or consults the business section of the newspaper to check which stocks he needs to buy or sell.
Cheyenne receives word that his father, whom he has not seen in quite a long time, has died. The aerophobe star decides to travel to New York by ocean liner to attend his funeral. Then, after meeting Nazi hunter Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch who deserves better than this), Cheyenne decides to go after Aloise Lange, the Nazi official who made his father’s life difficult in a concentration camp. And before you can say Paris, Texas, Cheyenne embarks on a road trip across this great land.
While the road movie, as practiced by the likes of Wim Wenders, requires its protagonists to experience this country’s colorful and quirky populace (and in the process find themselves), director Sorrentino and screenwriter Umberto Contrarello somehow manage to drain the small towns Cheyenne visits and the people he engages with of any personality and color. Wenders, a director who truly appreciates Americana, at least had Sam Shepard, a playwright and actor who understands this land and its myths and contradictions better than any other writer or director, by his side in Paris, Texas and the underappreciated Don’t Come Knocking.
Unlike many critics, I was not offended by the idea of this laconic and childish Goth rocker chasing after a war criminal. Is the idea ludicrous, one that stretches our credibility and tasks our patience? Absolutely. The final scene between Lange and Cheyenne is simultaneously moving and problematic: Lange is so pathetic, so deluded, that you cannot help but feel sorry for him. But that’s the least of this film’s problems.
But Penn’s mannered performance undermines and overwhelms Sorrentino’s efforts to contrast his character with the world around him and his long-delayed “growing up.” The film is full of visual sleights of hand —a crane shot here, a dolly shot there, uncalled-for high angle shots— that are meant to complement the protagonist’s bizarre journey but end up being another case of style triumphing over substance (and there was not much substance to this story to begin with).
And then there’s the issue of the repetitive and unsubtle use of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody).” It takes David Byrne’s live performance of the same halfway through the film to drive home its theme: the search for one’s own place in this world, for that feeling of peace and tranquility that a roof over our heads, the company of good friends, and a sense of belonging provide. But by hammering it over and over and over for close to two hours not only drains it of its power but makes the film’s intents and purposes that more obvious.