One of the creepier cinematic developments of recent years is the attempts by European filmmakers to mine the Holocaust for comedy. The first and most successful of these of was Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, which was followed by Peter Kossovitz's execrable Jakob the Liar. Now another Italian director, Paolo Sorrentino (who made the fine Il Divo), has drawn on the Holocaust in a similarly trivialising and adolescent way.
Perhaps the trend can be explained by the fact that some artists of this generation (Sorrentino is 41) may regard the Holocaust as now sufficiently distant in time to allow it to be appropriated and exploited without considering its moral content.
To be fair, Sorrentino's English-language debut is not purely a Holocaust comedy; it is primarily a 1990s indie road movie with a Holocaust element grafted on, and featuring an egotistical performance by a major American star in the form of Sean Penn, wearing a bad wig.
It is also a film that boasts moments of genuine wit, charm and even wisdom, though its 113 minutes feel twice as long, and the whole movie ultimately comes across as an exercise in self-conscious quirkiness.
Penn plays Cheyenne, a retired American rock star living in Ireland with his firefighter wife (Frances McDormand). He spends his time moping and playing the stock market. For his appearance and overall shtick the filmmakers seem to have drawn on rockers like Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, the various heavily made-up members of Kiss, and Robert Smith, the Goth lead singer of The Cure.
Though in his 50s, Cheyenne wears lipstick and eyeliner which make him look like a raddled drag queen and, unlike those real-life stars, he is a sad sack with a strange, effeminate voice.
He is bored and depressed (he retired after his songs prompted young fans to commit suicide) until he hears that his long-estranged father is dying in New York and he crosses the Atlantic to be by his side before he dies.
He arrives too late but discovers that his father, a Holocaust survivor, had spent years tracking down a concentration camp guard who is alive and hiding somewhere in the south-west of the United States.
Cheyenne meets a Simon Wiesenthal-like character, played by Judd Hirsch as a pompous ass ludicrously obsessed with the whereabouts of the gold teeth the Nazis stole from their victims. Then he goes searching for the missing guard.
Along the way to finding his father's tormentor, Cheyenne dispenses homespun, Rain Man-like wisdom in his simpering, giggling voice and begins to emerge from the adolescence in which he has been trapped.
It is a journey that ends with revenge and redemption, neither of which feel real or heartfelt.