Despite intriguing cult trappings, the presence of superstar Mel Gibson and a formidable bunch of musicians on the terrific music track, Wim Wenders’ “The Million Dollar Hotel” looms as a tough sell indeed. In North America, where no distrib has signed on as yet, this curious existential film noir will fall into a limbo between mainstream and arthouse fare, but it stands a better chance in Europe, especially in director Wenders’ native Germany, where it opened the first Berlin Film Festival of the new millennium.
Wenders’ fascination with American culture and, especially, American music has been evident throughout his 30-year career, and his association with Ry Cooder on his most successful film, “Paris, Texas,” ultimately led him to Cuba and last year’s hit music docu, “Buena Vista Social Club.”
While there was much to admire in his most recent fiction film, “The End of Violence” (1997), it was a commercial nonstarter, and the same fate is likely to befall “Hotel,” which was co-produced by Wenders’ Road Movies company and Gibson’s Icon Entertainment.
The new pic is almost a compendium of the director’s lifetime themes and obsessions — the wallowing in American trash culture, a fascination with what’s cool on the music scene, elements of faux noir in the “Hammett” tradition and a story in which lost souls seek redemption.
Although specifically set in L.A., it’s a film with a European feel; audiences partial to this rather rarefied material will find plenty to enjoy in the technically polished production, but those not on Wenders’ wavelength will be seriously alienated.
Intriguing setup revolves around a murder investigation conducted by FBI special agent Skinner (Gibson) into the death of Izzy Goldkiss (an uncredited Tim Roth), the son of media magnate Stanley Goldkiss (Harris Yulin); Izzy has fallen from the roof of the ironically named Million Dollar Hotel, which is located in a seedy section of downtown L.A. Suspects include an assorted bunch of losers and weirdos who inhabit the run-down establishment.
Pic gets off to a great start with a chopper shot of the L.A. skyline at dusk, descending to the huge metal sign on the roof of the titular hotel (“Popular Prices. Fire Proof”) to the accompaniment of the first of the several Bono songs featured on the soundtrack.
Tom Tom (Jeremy Davies) is running the length of the roof and waves to an unseen person before leaping to his death, while his voiceover narration asserts that only now does he realize that “life is the best.” An extended flashback picks up the story, which is arbitrarily set in 2001.
Skinner, who wears an uncomfortable-looking neck brace, soon discovers that the hotel is a haven for the city’s oddballs, of which the apparently retarded Tom Tom is only one.
There’s also Eloise (Milla Jovovich), a burned-out hooker with a taste for intellectual literature, whom Tom Tom adores; Geronimo (Jimmy Smits), who decides to make money out of the paintings — consisting of daubs of tar — “created” by Izzy before his death; Dixie (Peter Stormare), who claims to be the fifth Beatle and author of some of the group’s most famous songs and who speaks with a painfully broad Liverpool accent; the ditzy Vivien (Amanda Plummer), who asserts she was the dead man’s fiancee; the elderly Jessica (Gloria Stuart) and assorted others.
While Skinner carries out his desultory investigations, urged on by the dead man’s father, Tom Tom and Eloise begin a tentative, and apparently unconsummated, love affair. The cop’s methods include spying on all the inhabitants of the hotel and otherwise making life unpleasant for them.
The trouble is, the film never really catches fire either as a mystery or as a tale of unconditional love. Skinner, who is revealed to have been born with an additional arm, which has been surgically removed from his back, proves to be as much a “freak” as the inhabitants of the hotel — but the notion that the supposedly sane are just as mixed-up as the supposedly insane is hardly a new one, and is given undernourished treatment here.
Similarly, the romantic attachment between the knowing Eloise and the painfully inexperienced Tom Tom never amounts to anything substantial.
Performances are decidedly problematic, though there’s a welcome level of irony present in Gibson’s work; he tackles a nearly impossible character with charm and an edginess that give the film a much-needed center. But Jovovich provides no allure, looking wan and acting wanly throughout.
As for Davies, there will doubtless be conflicting opinions about the quality of his highly mannered performance; with his weird hair, manic and fidgety body moves and childlike speech, he will be, for many, a supremely irritating presence.
Luckily, Wenders’ visual skills haven’t deserted him, and with succulent widescreen lensing by Phedon Papamichael, “The Million Dollar Hotel” looks great even when what’s onscreen is unenthralling.
And there’s an extremely impressive music score featuring Brian Eno, Jon Hassell, Daniel Lanois and Bono. Concept of the pic was the brainchild of Bono, who had the idea of the opening (and closing) sequence when involved in a photo shoot on the roof of the hotel in question. Pic’s other technical credits are superior in all departments.
Ultimately, the superb craftsmanship and cultish aura can’t compensate for an underdeveloped and not very interesting story, especially when none of the characters is the least bit sympathetic or engaging.