DIRECTED BY: Wim Wenders
FEATURING:, , , Jimmy Smits,
PLOT: Following the death of a trust-fund kid at a downtown Los Angeles transient hotel, an unorthodox FBI agent arrives to interrogate the residents, enlisting the help of a mentally challenged man-child who holds a candle for a disaffected prostitute.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The dream collaboration of a notoriously iconoclastic film director and a rock star whose imagination always skirts with pretension, The Million Dollar Hotel thumbs its nose at convention even as it dives into classic genres and tropes. The result is a film that rarely makes sense and borders on incompetence, but revels in its absurdities and comes out happier for all its quirks.
COMMENTS: Wenders’ 1991 film Until the End of the World was, among other things, a piece of near-future science fiction in which he tried to envision a world almost like ours, but with just a touch of futurism. This approach extended to the soundtrack, for which the director solicited a murderer’s row of music legends—Talking Heads, R.E.M., Lou Reed, Patti Smith, among many—to envision their own sound at the turn of the millennium and contribute a song in that style. Included in that company was U2, a band for whom Wenders had recently directed a video, and which he enlisted to compose the title song. Clearly, Wenders and lead singer Bono hit it off. Which might explain why, when the real year 2000 finally arrived, Wenders would draw upon a story directly from Bono’s mind for the subject of his next film.
What they concocted together is almost a simulacrum of a detective movie. There is ostensibly a plot about the mysterious death of a powerful billionaire’s son (an uncredited) who has tossed aside his wealth to slum it in an L.A. flophouse. There is a detective who comes into a tight-knit community to expose its secrets, and there are the members of that community who attempt to unite against the outside world while still profiting individually. But all this amounts to something leagues beyond a MacGuffin, becoming a hook so irrelevant that it’s hard to imagine there was any real goal other than to give each actor a chance to shape themselves into the weirdest character they could imagine. Their motivations and the excitement with which they pursue them are universally disproportionate and baroque. It’s as if Bono’s entire story treatment read, “Think ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but everyone in it is cr-A-zeeee!”
To call the performances mannered is to indulge in breathtaking understatement. Wenders seems to have told the actors to “go bigger,” and each answers the call. Davies leads the way with a performance that skirts dangerously close to Tropic Thunder’s warning about filmed portrayals of the mentally challenged. Smits is given free reign to go wild as a Native American chieftain with the pretensions of a great artist, and still his character is overwhelmed by all the other weirdness in the hotel until he disappears entirely. Stormare is cast in the inexplicable role of the forgotten genius behind the Beatles, and his performance is predicated entirely on the concept of “bad John Lennon impression.” And there’s little doubt that this is all intentional, as evidenced by the casting of out-there hall-of-famers like Bud Cort, , and Julian Sands. The only actor who manages to sidestep this is Jovovich, whose flirtatious detachment is as grounded as the movie gets. Her work here hints at the acclaimed career she could have had, had her own choices in material and collaborators, along with regrettable typecasting, gone a different way.
You can’t discuss Million Dollar Hotel’s casting without addressing the presence of controversy magnet Mel Gibson. He marches through the film with a perverse confidence, haughtily steamrolling the troubled denizens of the hotel with his own aloof brand of weirdness. He seems to be doing a kind of hyperkinetic parody of Jack Webb’s Joe Friday, espousing a by-the-book philosophy while making sure to highlight his own odd peccadilloes at every turn. This oddball part in an ensemble piece initially seems completely out of sync with the box office behemoth he was at the turn of the millennium, and he notably disowned the movie during its release. And yet, a quick review of his c.v. suggests that it’s actually a nice fit for his interests. FBI agent Skinner’s physical deformity and the lengthy scene of his intense anguish pair nicely with Gibson’s masochistic roles in The Man Without a Face and Braveheart, his attraction to material like The Singing Detective, and of course his hyper-flagellant fetishes in The Passion of the Christ. His later objections aside, he is quite comfortable with everything he’s asked to do. Gibson is all-in.
But here’s the thing: as mystifying and impenetrable as this all is, it’s quite compulsively watchable. Tom is deeply irritating and Eloise is willfully obtuse, but their relationship is earnestly touching. Gibson’s apparent incompetence as an investigator doesn’t get in the way of genuine curiosity about what solution he’ll ultimately find. The sheer breadth of strange denizens of the title accommodation is an embarrassment of riches. And the questions it wants to ask (What is love? Who among us is truly sane?) are far less interesting than the ones it stumbles into (How is a local TV newscast able to run round-the-clock coverage of the sale of tar-based artwork? Why is a local greasy spoon run as if it was a Michelin 2-star restaurant?). The Million Dollar Hotel is not a particularly good movie. But it succeeds despite itself. After all, a film in which the central relationship expresses its passion through a full-face raspberry kiss is one that deserves our attention.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…the absorbing but distinctly flawed The Million Dollar Hotel is a real oddity… All round it’s a fascinating failure whose appeal may be slight, but there are many more original and exciting pleasures to be discovered in among its awkwardness than in a host of dumb big gun movies.” – Ian Nathan, Empire (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by Motyka, who asked, “what happens when Wim Wenders makes a movie based on Bono’s script?” and answered “Well, the results are… weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)