American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"This Must Be the Place" centers on another uncompromising character invention by Sean Penn, as an aging rock star who comes across like an arthritic bag lady and reveals without the slightest effort that he has a good heart and a quiet sense of humor. Few actors have played a wider variety of characters, and even fewer have done it without making it seem like a stunt.
Cheyenne (Penn) was a big star in the 1980s, but has done little to stay in the spotlight. He now lives in a mansion in Ireland with his wife, Jane (Frances McDormand), who works as a firefighter because that's in her nature. Unlike some foolish ancient rock stars who trifle with groupies, Cheyenne seems to have been long and contentedly married; although he has sort of a groupie named Mary (Eve Hewson), he's more of a kindly uncle to her.
What he's never done is change his look. The film opens with him touching up his bright red lipstick and reinforcing his eyeliner, which are displayed on a clown white face framed by stringy jet black hair. Some rock stars have better taste — such as David Byrne, who attended design school and has been inspired in his own redesign. He appears in the film, does the music for it, and is an instructive contrast to Cheyenne.
Cheyenne seems depleted. He walks slowly through a supermarket with a shopping cart and seems like he could use a Boy Scout on each arm. When he speaks, his voice is thin and reedy and doesn't seem to have any breath behind it. In Dublin, they know who he is and are accustomed to sightings. When he visits America, a lot of people don't stare because they instantly read him as an old lady clinging to the makeup of her youth.