Indie to the point of near-parody, Paolo Sorrentino’s exploration of fathers, sons, fame and guilt seems like the right type of on-paper vehicle for 2012’s softer, gentler Sean Penn. Bonus, then, that it involves him dressing like a left-out-in-the-sun Robert Smith and shuffling around like your oddball great-uncle who’s had two hip replacements. If this sounds achingly weird, it is, but it’s sneaky-charming in the right places and surprisingly insightful about the nature of modern America.
The reclusive frontman of a defunct band now married to a plucky firefighter (Frances McDormand), Cheyenne (Penn) leads a posh-but-humdrum life in Dublin, wanting for nothing but missing something. He’s forced to address his life stuck in neutral upon the death of his long-estranged dad, a Holocaust survivor to whom he hadn’t spoke in decades. Uncovering, through famed Nazi hunter Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch), that his father came close to locating the man who persecuted him at Auschwitz, eyeliner-caked Cheyenne canvasses the States, following clues that lead him to one momentous interaction with “normal” folk after another.
It’s easy to lump Sorrentino’s film, named for the Talking Heads classic (David Byrne cameos), into the “oddball finding himself” canon, but there’s a little more meat to the proceedings than that. Thank Penn, whose stark, respectful acceptance of numerous bit-character soliloquies mirrors our own open ingestion of the material. Apparently it’s possible for a 52-year-old man in full-on Cure makeup to avoid drawing focus.