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.