In 1998, a Cannes jury headed by Martin Scorsese gave the festival’s Grand Jury Prize (traditionally seen as the “runner-up” award to the Palme d’Or) to Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, kicking off a worldwide goodwill tour that culminated in three Academy Awards and more than $200 million at the global box office. This year, as Scorsese’s longtime muse, Robert De Niro, presides over the jury, another Italian filmmaker stands in contention with an even more vacuous, grotesquely sentimental Holocaust comedy. And judging by the generally warm reaction this ridiculous film has received in Cannes, whether or not it ends up winning a prize here, this certainly won’t be the last you hear of it.
The movie is Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place, and it stars Sean Penn—in lipstick, painted fingernails and a teased black fright wig—as an aging ex-rock star (modeled on The Cure’s Robert Smith) who returns to America following a long period of European exile and, I kid you not, sets out on a cross-country odyssey to track down the Nazi war criminal who tortured his late father at Auschwitz. Across the fruited plains he goes, aided and abetted by a gregarious, Simon Wiesenthal-esque Nazi hunter (Judd Hirsch), making pit stops in Michigan, New Mexico and Utah, where he encounters a predictable panorama of red-state eccentrics and hard-luck cases the likes of which even the Coen brothers wouldn’t stoop to at their worst. Among them are the Nazi’s family members and the inventor of wheeled luggage (the latter played by Harry Dean Stanton in an obvious tip of the hat to Wim Wenders’ Palme d’Or-winning Paris, Texas, though the grating tone of Sorrentino’s film is closer to Wenders’ more recent slice of faux Americana, Don’t Come Knocking). And at every step, the Penn character, like some sort of goth Forrest Gump, manages to brighten up these dreary lives, and learn something about himself in the process.
This Must Be the Place takes its title from the 1983 Talking Heads song, memorably grafted by Oliver Stone over large sections of 1987’s Wall Street. Here, we see it performed in its entirety by Heads frontman David Byrne in a concert sequence inserted into the movie—like a subsequent tete-a-tete between Byrne and Penn—for no conceivable reason, unless it was contractually demanded by Byrne in exchange for his contribution of several wan original songs (co written with Will Oldham) or because Penn and Sorrentino wanted to show us what cool friends they have. As for the Holocaust, it is used as what Alfred Hitchcock famously termed a MacGuffin—a narrative device of no particular importance except to set the story in motion. Indeed, for all that the legacy of the Shoah bears on Sorrentino’s film, Penn might just as soon be searching for a reel of top-secret microfilm, or the enchanted gold of Pirates of the Caribbean. And like Johnny Depp’s metrosexual Captain Morgan routine in that tireless series, Penn has here assembled an extravagant collection of wardrobe malfunctions, physical ticks and vocal inflections that many connoisseurs of capital-A acting will doubtless hail as a great performance.
So it’s no real surprise that, in a festival where the vast majority of films inside and outside of the main competition have focused on humanity at its worst—kidnapping, child abuse, murder—or the very end of the world itself, Sorrentino’s aggressively life-affirming movie has wormed its way into the hearts of a surprising number of usually sensible, discerning critics. And one doubts it’s over yet. Without question, this pablum masquerading as “sophisticated” adult entertainment is one of the canniest movies in Cannes this year.