A near-agoraphobic musician is an odd protagonist for a road movie, but then "odd" is the operative term for This Must Be the Place, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's first English-language film. This mashup of genres and themes doesn't entirely succeed, but it is warm, funny and ably crafted.
The movie's eccentricity is embodied in star Sean Penn, who plays mononymic goth-rocker Cheyenne as a man who's taken refuge in gentleness. A tax exile who lives in a Dublin mansion, the ex-musician speaks with a high-pitched, becalmed voice that — like the movie — is part Hamlet, part Betty Boop. Although he can't abide the responsibility of having fans take his words seriously, Cheyenne hasn't abandoned the trappings of his trade; the story begins with lipstick, eyeliner and hairspray, as Penn makes himself into a facsimile of Robert Smith, frontman of The Cure.
Cheyenne retains some tethers to reality, notably his plainspoken, plainly named wife, Jane (Frances McDormand). While she fights fires — literally — Cheyenne does the shopping, dabbles in stock trading and hangs out with a young black-clad fan, Mary (Eve Hewson, daughter of U2's Bono). Because he believes even goths need a few connections, Cheyenne is trying to fix up Mary with one of her admirers, a hopelessly straight shop clerk.
Cheyenne and Jane have been married 35 years, and their Irish residency has probably lasted almost that long; Cheyenne doesn't travel by plane, or for that matter, by car or train. When he learns that his estranged father is dying in New York, the rocker tries to fly there, but gets unnerved by a cockpit snafu that — for nonpassengers, at least — feels quietly hilarious. He ends up taking an ocean liner instead, and by the time he reaches his father's ultra-orthodox Jewish community, the man is dead.
Cheyenne knew his father was a Holocaust survivor, but never gave it much thought. Reading Dad's journals, though, he learns of the older man's obsession with tracking down the German soldier who humiliated him at Auschwitz. A noted Nazi hunter and family friend, Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch), tells Cheyenne that the German is "a nobody." But the now-dutiful son begins his pursuit nonetheless, following the trail through the back roads of Michigan, Utah and New Mexico. It's a land of bad diners, worse motels and weird (or at least weirdly behaved) fauna.
Along the way, Cheyenne discovers America, and his own Americanness. He drives an SUV and eventually buys a gun as he prepares for a possible showdown with his father's tormenter. And yet he's still drawn to outsiders, including a single-mom waitress (Kerry Condon) and her chubby son (Grant Goodwin). The latter insists on joining Cheyenne in a performance of the movie's title song, a 1983 Talking Heads number — a lovely moment that's just one of several versions of the tune, which is also sung on screen by ex-Head David Byrne.
The movie's tone emulates its protagonist's character. The director's previous feature, Il Divo, chronicled an Italian political mastermind and crackled with its subject's power. Although it includes a few overly flamboyant camera swoops, This Must Be the Place is serene and unhurried. (It was trimmed by a few minutes for American attention spans.)
Cheyenne's quest is an attempt to construct a posthumous bond with his father. But it's also a search for maturity by a man who admits, "I pretended to be a kid too long." Sorrentino's symbol for accepting adulthood is a dubious one, but this journey through the sad and the strange is well worth following.