Paolo Sorrentino is the Italian stylist behind The Consequences of Love, The Family Friend and Il Divo, his idiosyncratic portrait of the Andreotti regime; so visually striking were those works that it's perhaps no surprise they should have caught the eyes of producers further West. To his credit, Sorrentino has continued to go his own way for his English-language debut This Must Be The Place, travelling via Ireland, rather than hewing to that well-trodden path that has seen countless European filmmakers race to Hollywood to remake somebody else's horror film. Yet those earlier Sorrentinos were site-specific, and hermetically sealed from the world; his latest, a typically self-conscious stab at creating a cult movie, betrays a confluence of outside influences that have collectively contrived to turn a once-gleaming vision into a nonsensical mess.
Those last three words might well apply to the film's central figure Cheyenne, a shaky, Gothy ex-rocker played by (gulp) Sean Penn. Part Robert Smith and part Ozzy Osbourne, Cheyenne shambles around a working-class Dublin neighborhood with his granny cart, trying to reconnect with his emotionally distant daughter (Eve Hewson), before the news breaks that his own father is ailing back in his native America. Music has always been essential to the Sorrentino aesthetic - as witnessed by this unexpected reclamation of Trio's "Da Da Da" to underline the more surreal developments in the Andreotti life story - and his latest sets itself up as a de facto rock movie, a filmed concept album boasting numerous illustrious collaborators: Hewson is Bono's daughter, while David Byrne (from whose Talking Heads song the film plucks its title) serves double duty, interacting with Penn before the camera at one point, and co-writing the score with Will Oldham.
For the most part, This Must Be The Place is exactly what happens when a director earns himself a load of rockstar mates: it's a clodhopping globetrotter in the Wim Wenders mode, an inspiration acknowledged in the casting of Paris, Texas lead Harry Dean Stanton, who's granted a monologue concerning advances in baggage technology that could only have been written by a filmmaker who's spent the past few years jetting from one festival to the next. (As ever, the suspicion is that Sorrentino understands props better than he's ever done people.) The director's visual sense has shipped more or less intact, at least. America obviously gives him a whole new set of horizons to survey, from reflections in oil tankers to outsized replicas of beer bottles; Sorrentino even knows how to make a five-second transitional shot of a man carrying a chair on his shoulders across a hotel corridor compelling in some way.
It's how he views the people inhabiting this landscape that has suffered, his usual brisk, skilful portraiture lapsing into decadent caricature; what he gains in colour and scope, he loses in precision. I just didn't buy that a well-to-do American rock star would be living out his days in Ireland, or that he'd be married to Frances McDormand, or that he'd have retreated from the world for the reason that he has. Any sense of deliberate incongruity is immediately undermined by Penn's gift for comedy, which - even after the breezy levity of his Harvey Milk impersonation - remains, famously, only about as well-developed as, say, Geoffrey Howe's gift for comedy. Those scenes conceived as funny - Penn offering lipstick advice to an elevator full of women - have the life sucked right out of them by the leading man's mugging.
The film staggers on into silly, insincere, if not outright tasteless territory as Cheyenne heeds his father's call to become an international Nazi hunter, the kind of out-of-the-bag plothike that makes This Must Be The Place sound a good deal zanier and more interesting than it actually is. In fact, even in this final stretch you can hear Sorrentino pandering to his new musical admirers, rendering the experience of tracking down war criminals as akin to that of going on tour and playing hero for a couple of hours each night. (I'm blaming Bono.) The crisis of confidence in the Sorrentino aesthetic - the implicit sense not even he quite knows what he's doing here - is apparent from the way he insists on having Cheyenne mumble a pre-emptive "Something is not quite right here" every half an hour, but in truth nothing is very much right for long stretches of This Must Be The Place's running time. For all its elegant crane shots, despite the constant reach for Arvo Pärt as a shortcut for emotion, this is some way closer to a miss than it is to a hit.
This Must Be The Place opens in selected cinemas from Friday.