Dir. Paolo Sorrentino
Cheyenne (Sean Penn) is a broken-down Raggedy Ann former rock star, with a penchant for red lipstick and a jet-black mane of Robert Smith hair. He leaves his mansion in the mornings and lopes around Dublin trailing a shopping cart behind him, spending time with a young woman, Mary (Eve Hewson), who he may or may not be related to, and hanging out with his vivacious wife, Jane (Frances McDormand), who routinely beats him in their evening handball competitions (clearly a conceit of the film is that deliberately off-beat Cheyenne be surrounded by women with the most obvious and dull names possible).
The rest of the time, however, he’s a shambling wreck, lurching forward in black leather boots and platform soles, and walking as if the lightest touch from another human would cause him excruciating pain. He no longer performs after two young fans of his took his gloomy lyrics to heart and killed themselves, and he has no particular interest in music, food or anything else. As we find him, he’s going through the motions of his daily appearance, applying make-up in the mirror and tousling his hair, but that’s his only remaining affectation of his glorious former past. Now, he’s little more than a curiosity piece, a rock dinosaur whom elicits smirks, giggles and stolen cell-phone photographs wherever he goes.
In writer/director Paolo Sorrentino’s peculiar, deliberately off-beat (if not off-putting) drama, he’s also very much a character who needs Something To Do. There are a few moments early in the film where you think you can see where it might be headed: Will Cheyenne get together with his old band mates and reunite for an MTV showcase? Will he work to set Mary up with a friendly, somewhat dorky boy (Seth Adkins) he meets in the mall? Will he produce the record of a young and upcoming band whom very much want to work with him? Instead, the film takes a serious and perplexing zag in an altogether different direction: Cheyenne goes to America for the funeral of his Orthodox Jewish father, and goes on a road trip to hunt down his father’s Nazi antagonist from his time in Auschwitz (!?).
Yes, you read that correctly. Somehow, about a third of the way into the film, we are in a fish-out-of-water road movie as Cheyenne picks up the trail of clues his father left him and goes in hot pursuit of a war criminal with only the occasional assistance of a professional Nazi-hunter (Judd Hirsch). We go from having an aging, affected little man who continually has to puff his wild strands of hair out of his eyes, to watching a life or death struggle of conscience. It’s like making a chocolate birthday cake and using mayonnaise for the frosting.
As if to further prove its elusive point, the filmmakers toss in a steady stream of odd red herrings and non-sequitor moments: A man in a blue jumpsuit slips and falls while roller blading furiously past Cheyenne as he sits on a park bench in Central Park; a pretty, young Asian woman celebrates a shuffleboard throw with a skeezy older redneck in slow motion in a Midwestern bar; odd details that never add up to anything much in particular, except in a kind of cheesy music video way. In this aspect, it is more than slightly reminiscent of the debut directorial feature by a real rock star, David Byrne’s 1986 film True Stories. Little surprise then that Byrne makes an appearance of his own in the picture, as himself, playing the titular song in front of a rhapsodic audience dressed all in white.
There’s nothing wrong with confounding an audience’s expectations, of course, but when things become truly random seeming and the thin joke of Cheyenne’s made-up face, affected walk and feeble voice plays out in the wilds of the American rough-and-tumble west, there doesn’t seem to be a hell of a lot more at work here. It plays like a first-time screenwriter’s exercise in how to take a definitive character with nothing in particular to do and somehow create a storyline around them.
The end of the film — with Cheyenne taking steps to finally grow up from his past — adds a layer of confusing subterfuge that does little to enhance the increasingly grating experience that has come before it. Penn, for all his physical gifts, happily dives into his child-like character’s fey eccentricities, but is never able to fully humanize him beyond the obvious caricature he’s being asked to embody.
It doesn’t help matters that Cheyenne tends to speak in wisdom-soaked platitudes (“Life’s full of beautiful things”), no doubt meant to reflect all the hard-earned lessons he’s absorbed over the years, but he’s so disconnected from us he never rises much above a carnival sideshow. To stretch the metaphor a bit, even once you’ve paid your money and entered the darkened tent, the creature you find in the cage isn’t capable of holding your interest for terribly long.