What ever happened to Cheyenne, the (fictional) front man of the Fellows? The answer is first banal—he’s retired to a Dublin castle in a standard rock-star move—and then deeply consequential, as he embarks on an improbable quest across America to confront his father’s World War II concentration camp guard. Preposterous yet surprisingly diverting, Paolo Sorrentino’s English-language film starts as a sight-gag comedy about an aging pop-music relic, before melding its fish-out-of-water journey with a soulsearching hunt for a Nazi.
The conceit of showing a pop-culture figure’s life out of the limelight is beyond hackneyed, but the film’s incongruous visual splendor and Penn’s all-or-nothing commitment keep Sorrentino’s unabashed folly afloat for a while. Penn is part of that visual flourish: Cheyenne looks like the Cure’s Robert Smith in his Goth-pompadour phase, accessorized here with a pince-nez and wheeled luggage perpetually in tow. Penn plays him with a high nasalbreathy voice, picking through arch witticisms with nerdy Warholian delicacy.
Cheyenne, who hails from an Orthodox Jewish background and whose wife (Frances McDormand) is a firefighter, comes to seem progressively less alien by comparison with both his quarry and the heightened version of flyover America depicted in the film. Yet the frisson caused by pairing faded celebrity with infamy-in-hiding can’t save this voyage of self-discovery.