Sean Penn Leads a Fast Five Films for Friday

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Kristin Callahan / Everett Collection

The countdown ticks toward Sunday’s Palme d’Or ceremony. With two days left, only two of the 20 film in competition are left to see. In a Festival that began with big names and high hopes, a gentle malaise has settled upon the thousands of journalists and critics who flock here each May. The most eagerly anticipated film, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, had an epic vision that disappointed as many viewers as it impressed. Another hot-ticket entry, Melancholia, found many advocates but got drowned in the sea of controversy surrounding director Lars von Trier’s intemperate press conference and the Festival’s designation of him as persona non grata.

Later I will file on The Artist, the one unqualified delight in the competition — though it may be too sweet and buoyant to win a top prize that is usually bestowed on weirder, more solemn fare. In the meantime, here are snapshots of a quintet of contenders.

THIS MUST BE THE PLACE

A distinguished Italian director ventures outside his homeland for his first film in English and and examination of the pop-world Zeitgeist. Michelangelo Antonioni managed that spectacularly well in Blowup (1966). Now Paolo Sorrentino, whose Il Divo took the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes three years ago, comes to America, enlists Oscar winners Sean Penn and Frances McDormand in his quirky enterprise, and nearly pulls off an instant assimilation into our contemporary folkways. This Must Be the Place is a weirdly engaging pastiche of minigenres: rock-star bio, American road movie  and  — hold your breath — Holocaust detective drama. It’s a mystery why Sorrentino would think of mashing Velvet GoldmineEasy Rider and Music Box into one movie, but, bless him, he tried, and came within one unfortunate casting decision of succeeding.

It’s been 20 years since Cheyenne Wyoming (Penn), a 50-something rock star from the Kiss era, hasn’t performed with the band, The Fellows. He molders away mourfully in tax-haven Ireland with his loyal wife of 35 years (McDormand, quite solid and sensible in the Sharon Osbourne role) and a debilitating depression stoked by the suicide of two boys after listening to one of the I-love-death songs he used to write and sing. Still applying his face paint and lipstick each morning, still sporting the fright-wig hairdo he wore on stage so long ago, he has become used to squeals of pleasure from his remaining fans and curt glances from Irish supermarket shoppers.

Cheyenne needs a change, and gets one when his father, from whom he has been estranged for 30 years, dies. Returning (by ship; he fears flying) to his New York roots, he improbably takes on the assignment to search for Aloisse Lange, a nonagenarian Nazi who worked in the concentration camp that held Cheyenne’s father. This leads to a a crosscountry drive, tracking down Lange relatives in Michigan and New Mexico, before closing in on his antique quarry in Utah. On occasion he is accompanied by famous Nazi-hunter Mordecai Levy (Judd Hirsch), who shows an understandable skepticism in Cheyenne’s sleuthing abilities.

In The Consequences of Love (2004) and A Friend of the Family (2006), both shown at Cannes, Sorrentino lent an elegant visual wit to stories of malificent Italians of the small-town variety. Somehow he burrowed into the vocal and emotional styles of his Irish and American characters here. No line sounds false; each passing figure feels fully inhabited. Joyce Van Patten and Kerry Condon shine as Lange’s wife and daughter; Harry Dean Stanton has a lovely cameo as the man who thought to put wheels on suitcases; and David Byrne, who wrote the film’s songs, has a sublime onscreen moment performing the title tune before a rapt singalong audience.

The only problem is Penn, looking suitably withered but speaking in a wispy voice that evokes both Tiny Tim and Droopy Dog. Radiating the aura less of a rock star than of something found under a rock, Penn is never Cheyenne, always Sean Penn playing Cheyenne. He is like the lead actor who’s the one weak performer in a top Broadway musical; you may want to wait for him to leave the cast and his replacement to take over.

DRIVE

A movie stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway man for thieves gets on the wrong side of Mr. Big and must steer his way out of trouble. As in Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), to which this is a feeble homage, the driver is known only as Driver and has no known past or discernible emotional cardiogram; he is what he does. That is a suitable role for the blank-slate personality of Ryan Gosling, who does fill the screen with the inert gas of his anti-charisma.

As rival gangsters, Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman have fun trying to steal scenes from each other. All in all, though, this pensive, ultimately violent film, directed by Denmark’s Nicolas Winding Refn, is a studious collection of clichés from earlier and more satisfying L.A. crime movies. The hammy acting of Brian Cranston as a limping stunt chief, and the visual sentimentality of the driver’s relationship with his neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, send Drive crashing into the wall of its meager pretensions.

LE HAVRE

“Foreigners,” a barmaid in this rough port city tartly observes, “see bums in a considerably more romantic light than we French.” Aki Kaurismaki must be one of those sentimental foreigners. The Finnish writer-director of baleful comedies (The Match Factory Girl, Drifting Clouds, The Man Without a Past) turns surprisingly soft in his first second French film. When Marcel (the very appealing André Wilms), an artist who makes a meager living shining shoes, is thrown together with Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), an African boy who has been smuggled into the country, he and his neighbors protect Idrissa from the police, and assist his departure to his mother in London, by forming a little resistance group.

The dialogue is tart in the old Kaurismaki style — Marcel: “Have you been crying?” Idrissa: “No.” Marcel: “Good. It won’t help.” — and Jean-Pierre Léaud pops in to lay on a blessing from the glory days of Truffaut and Godard a half-century ago. But the notion of communal solidarity never gathers emotional traction, nor do his characters possess the skewed whimsy of his earlier work.  Toward the end a slew of miracles materialize, suggesting that Kaurismaki sees Le Havre as a fable about working-class sanctity. That puts the film out of its element, and the director out of his.  May he return to Finland and continue to paint deft, dour sketches of his idiosyncratic countrymen.

THE KID WITH THE BIKE

A similar scenario to La Havre’s — 12-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret), abandoned by his father, foster-cared on weekends by the kindly hairdresser Samantha (Cécile de France) — kindles a much richer experience in the latest film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, two-time Palme d’Or winners for Rosetta (1999) and L’Enfant (2005).

As Cyril pedals his bicycle, searching for his place in the world and perhaps a little peace, the Dardenne brothers expertly steer the viewers through the enforced solitude at the heart of this child’s hurt. So lonely is the boy for a male role model, even of the wrong kind, that he gets sucked into a violent theft in large part because the mastermind takes the time to befriend him. Cyril desperately needs a “guardian angel” (the film’s working title), and the trusting Samantha is that, to rescue him from his misdeeds and give him the love he has been missing.

Though it shares Le Havre’s sunny conclusion, The Kid With a Bike is a movie that believes less in miracles than in the occasional existence of good people. The Dardennes, masters at filling physical space with stark emotions, balance this hopeful vision with the dark truth that children are easy prey for life’s real villains, the people who can so cunningly exploit kids.

FOOTNOTE

Father-son movies are usually man-boy dramas, but this excellent Israeli film, written and directed by Joseph Cedar, shows that the threads of competition, envy, exasperation and love are no less complex when the parent and the child are both grown men. Eliezer Scholnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) is a professor of Talmudic studies at the Hebrew University, toiling tirelessly and nearly anonymously for 30 years to unlock the secrets of the Jerusalem Bible. His son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) teaches in the same department but with much more success; to Eliezer’s brilliance and dedication he adds the gift of smooth schmoozing. When one of them is awarded the vaunted Israel prize, the other must summon restraint and ethics, all the while stewing at the injustice.

Rigorously balanced in its sympathies, and with a piercing view of human behavior under stress, the film is a human comedy that spans and understands the generations. This subtle delight is no mere footnote to the competition slate; it is one of this Festival’s glories.

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