There may be no way to prepare you for the twin oddities that are “This Must Be the Place’’ and Sean Penn’s performance in it. On the surface, the film’s another one of those arty existential road trips about burned-out rock stars confronting their empty lives. See Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere’’ and the recent “For Ellen’’ (although you don’t really have to). What raises “Place’’ above this mini-pack is the weary yet wise humor that floats through its ghostly journey from Dublin to the high deserts of America. This isn’t a great movie, but it is a special one.
And Penn is something to see. As Cheyenne, a retired American goth-rocker living out his days in an Irish mansion, the star is almost unrecognizable under a chimney-brush hairdo and pancake makeup. He’s a ringer for Robert Smith of the post-punk band the Cure but he moves like a latter-day Ozzy Osbourne, shuffling from room to room in an atonal symphony of drug-ravaged neurons. When Cheyenne speaks, it’s in a spacey high-pitched whisper. He might once have moved heaven and earth and the pop charts, but he now comes across as a sweetly damaged child — or maybe Jeff Spicoli 30 years down a very bumpy road.
It’s a performance that’s easy to laugh at, but Penn, slyly, invites comedy in. However haltingly, there’s a brain ticking under all that makeup, and an awareness of the cosmic joke the character’s life has become. Frances McDormand is a treat as Cheyenne’s bluff, hearty wife, Jane — she doesn’t enable him so much as prop him up so he won’t blow over, and she loves him both for what he was and what he has become. You could easily see years passing hanging out with these two, which is precisely Cheyenne’s problem. He’s immobilized.
You may think you know where the movie’s going, but you really don’t. The script (by director Paolo Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello) sends a reluctant Cheyenne to Queens, N.Y., for the funeral of his forbidding Orthodox Jewish father, then out across the open plains of middle America on a search for the guard who tormented the father at Auschwitz. Yes, “This Must Be the Place’’ is a Burned-Out Rock Star Holocaust Nazi-Hunting Road Comedy-Drama. And by God if it doesn’t have its flaky charms.
Better by far in pieces than as a whole, the movie is united by Penn’s spectral presence and Luca Bigazzi’s stunning camerawork, especially once we get past the East Coast into the heartland. The cast is full of fecundities, from a brief turn by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne (playing a collegial former rock star named David Byrne) to Judd Hirsch as an egomaniacal (but quite effective) Nazi hunter, to a random (but quite wonderful) appearance by the venerable Harry Dean Stanton, to the enchanting Kerry Condon as the ex-Nazi’s granddaughter, living on the far rim of America with a face out of a Dorothea Lange photograph.
Penn’s Cheyenne moves through this crew a little like Peter Sellers’s Chance the gardener in “Being There,’’ with the difference that he’s not entirely a blank slate. He brings out varying emotions in other people: exasperation, tenderness, guilt. You can tell “This Must Be the Place’’ was made by Europeans, because it sees the US as a gorgeously surreal playground of lost souls. It’s also a country where a man can, if he looks hard enough, remember who he was before he became famous.
The title, of course, comes from the Talking Heads song, which is heard in various versions on the soundtrack and which teases the hero with the elusive promise of home. The final scene does deliver Cheyenne (and us) there but in a manner that’s frustratingly opaque and overly symbolic. As always, it’s the getting there that matters.