Italian director Palo Sorrentino deserves an admiring handshake for a Warhol-meets-Fellini film that remarkably transforms Sean Penn into Cheyenne, a faded rock musician with effeminate diction, and goes one better by flanking him with Frances McDormand as his wife of 35 years, a Dublin fire-fighter who lives for Tai Chi. The childlike Cheyenne is a bored but astute Robert “Cure” Smith-knockoff who puts on his glam lipstick every morning and sulks around the couple’s Dublin mansion considering Tesco stock options while mulling over big hunks of guilt (his band stopped touring 20 years earlier after two suicides). For fun, the marrieds play pelota in their empty swimming pool in a scene that all at all but defines eccentricity.
But when the otherwise reclusive Cheyenne returns to New York to attend his estranged father’s funeral (afraid of flying, he goes by liner) uncovered diary entries open a portal into an Auschwitz legacy. This is Cheyenne’s cue for a platitudinous American Gothic road trip to make good on his father’s lifelong mission to find his hinterlands-hidden SS tormentor. Sorrentino’s vision of America, like that of many European directors, veers between the ominous and the contrived, the surreal and the stylized, as if hubcaps, milkshakes, truckers, and single-mother waitresses all came from one square root. The bizarre journey is whimsically beautiful at times, vainly tedious at others.
But blue-eyed Penn’s ferocious meekness, or meek ferociousness, all of it coiffed in a mesmerizing near-falsetto, keeps the concoction interesting. In the end, the story has less to do with lost fame, music, Jews, the Holocaust, or even invented American landscapes, and more with a middle-age man who has stumbled improbably into growing up. Songwriter David Byrne, whose Talking Heads song “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)” gave the movie its title, furnishes both his presence and a fine (albeit invasive) soundtrack.