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Originally published Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 3:03 PM

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'This Must Be the Place': Rocker's tale strikes too many sour notes

A movie review of "This Must Be the Place," an ill-conceived, tonally false dramedy about a burned-out rock star (Sean Penn, in a baffling and underwhelming performance) determined to avenge his late father's humiliation at the hands of a Nazi criminal.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 1.5 stars

'This Must Be the Place,' with Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Kerry Condon, Judd Hirsch, Harry Dean Stanton, David Byrne. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, from a screenplay by Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello. 111 minutes. Rated R for language. Varsity.

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The notion of a childlike, slow-talking, retired rock star hunting aging Nazi war criminals sounds like a pretty good premise for a recurring sketch on "Saturday Night Live." But for the hero of an almost two-hour feature film that isn't played strictly for laughs and doesn't resemble some kind of outré comic-book universe? No. Sorry.

"This Must Be the Place," an ill-conceived dramedy with a shockingly annoying performance by Sean Penn, can't really figure out what kind of movie it's supposed to be.

On one hand, Penn's role as a present-day, guilt-ridden former leader of a 1980s New Wave band (something akin to the Cure), wearing his leather and lipstick under a mane of jet-black hair at the grocery store and in his Dublin castle, demands a certain wide-eyed wonder in the film's approach and style — a little Tim Burton, a little Werner Herzog.

But while co-writer and director Paolo Sorrentino ("Il Divo") strains for a visionary feel, he rarely convinces. Sorrentino evokes a certain giddy charm at times, such as the sight of Penn's character, Cheyenne, playing handball in an empty swimming pool with his feisty, adoring wife (Frances McDormand).

But most of "This Must Be the Place" goes too far, keeping an audience artificially off- balance with out-of-context images (a bison looking through a glass door), self-conscious grandeur in visual composition, and the grating deliberateness of Penn's movements and speech. A scene with musician David Byrne (as himself) is equally random, though it does yield a flash of brilliance from Penn.

Sorrentino really goes off the rails once Cheyenne travels to America after his estranged father's death. With little rhyme or reason, the character drives cross-country in search of a Nazi fugitive who humiliated his parent in a concentration camp. Despite the gravity of that Holocaust twist and the serious performances of a fine cast including Judd Hirsch, Kerry Condon and Harry Dean Stanton, Sorrentino keeps mucking about with the film's tone. An unhelpful Penn remains little more than a cartoon parody.

In the end, "This Must Be the Place" isn't just bad. It's inappropriate.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com

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