Cannes, May 20: Sean Penn’s Risky Venture

American actors and European directors can make a funny combo: one aims for highbrow legitimacy, the other wants a wider audience. And when they get together, the results can be blissful hybrids or horrible mutants. Just ask Ryan Gosling and Sean Penn, both of whom debuted new movies here in Cannes that hit both ends of the spectrum like crazy.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn may have just given Gosling the best role of his career in Drive, a steely, sexy, menacing pulp thriller that turns the former mouseketeer and Notebook heartthrob into a 21st century Steve McQueen. As a Hollywood stuntman and part-time mechanic who moonlights by driving getaway cars for petty thieves, Gosling barely utters a word, strutting through life like a clenched fist and sporting a silver silk jacket embroidered with a huge yellow scorpion on its back. Respect his space, and he’s cool, composed and impossible to fluster. Cross him, and the depths of violence he will unleash is deep and devastating.

Refn, who not only directed but also wrote the screenplay, has a track record of making movies with near-psychotic antiheros prone to fits of extreme violence, and tailored his vision to fit Gosling like a glove. It’s a bravura performance that will stun and thrill audiences when the movie opens in the U.S. this September.

Then again, Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place might actually earn the dubious distinction of being a two-time Oscar winner star vehicle so strange, ridiculous and downright loopy that it doesn’t even get a U.S. release. In it, Penn, eerily aping Robert Smith from the Cure but adding the somnambulistic shuffle of Ozzy Osbourne, plays an aging ’80s pop star living in Ireland who returns to America when his father gets fatally ill. Once there, he decides to honor his Auschwitz-surviving father by tracking down the Nazi who tortured him-and apparently is still alive in the Southwest. Wait, what? That’s right: aging goth rocker turns Nazi hunter.

Sorrentino is a dazzling stylist with a penchant for eccentric, sometimes grotesque characters finding their way through a quirky narrative landscape. But even the basic premise is far too wacked out to bear, and using it as a framework for a road trip movie through the heart of America is a wild misfire. Besides, the oddball attempts to portray the open plains, kitschy diners and broad personalities of the United States come off as strained and silly. Still, it’s oddly exhilarating to see Penn jump headlong into such a bold folly. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Cannes, May 20: Sean Penn’s Risky Venture