Partly financed by the success of his script for “Mouse Hunt,” Adam Rifkin’s pretentious study of an L.A. flophouse abandons black comedy for black fatalism. Indeed, next to the damned souls who call the Golden Eagle home, the misfit losers of “Chelsea Walls” (this month’s East Coast sleazy hotel movie) look dazzlingly upscale and uplifting. Everyone and everything at the Golden Eagle oozes squalor and degradation from every enlarged pore; writer-director Rifkin’s overdetermined view of poverty is matched only by his overworked aestheticism. Pic’s zealous hellaciousness might appeal to those who like their “art” and “realism” laid on with a trowel, but the absence of any big stars (James Caan’s cameo clocks in at 45 seconds) and the theatrical hollowness of much of the dialogue and acting make it unlikely that audiences will want to be bummed out in such authentically second-rate company.
“Night” interweaves two stories on one very hot summer day. Main strand concerns two old men, Tommy (real-life racketeer Donnie Montemarano), a hardened two-bit con on his first day out of the joint, and his lifetime partner and cohort, Mic (Vinny Argiro, sometime actor and real-life pal of Montemarano’s from the old neighborhood) who eagerly awaits him on the other side of the prison gate with a surprise — a plan to go straight as casino dealers in Vegas and rake in the money and the showgirls.
The agent of the plan’s inevitable failure is a prostitute named Amber (Natasha Lyonne), whose relatively early demise gives her one of the longest featured roles as a corpse in film history. While the two men play out their fable of lost redemption, Amber’s sinister pimp Rodan (Vinnie Jones) and his main girl Sally (Ann Magnuson in a Mary Magdalene-ish turn) recruit a 15-year-old virgin so fresh-faced she still wears braces (newcomer Nicole Jacobs) into the Life.
Whatever surprises the two stories hold involve reversals of expectation that only go in one direction — downward. Thus the legit job that Mic is so proud of turns out to consist of mopping up floors at a peep-show parlor. Yet, admittedly, this affords Rifkin one extraordinary scene involving a stripper’s spaced-out dance routine and the square-framed death-heads of her booth clientele, where one can clearly see the grotesque lyricism the rest of the film only vainly strives for.
Stylistically, Rifkin works hard to come up with shots that couldn’t have been easy to get, such as the moment where we catch a glimpse of Sally and her john screwing away as reflected in miniature in the eyeball of a teary-eyed watcher. Footage is mercilessly tweaked and processed for the maximum grainy hyper-reality, and the camera is rarely still. The best thing in the movie is definitely its killer soundtrack (sampling the likes of Tom Waits, 2 Live Crew and Billie Holiday), which sings the low-down blues with an effortless authenticity the imagery can’t even approach.
Whatever relief might be afforded by the infusion of well-known figures in supporting roles (Russ Meyer regular Kitten Natividad, soul singer Sam Moore) is undercut by an evangelical doom that spares no one. Thus the surviving Nicholas brother of the famed tap-dance team, Fayard, does a nifty nonagenarian shuffle only to drop dead of a heart attack.
Between shots of hookers, derelicts and assorted low-lifes poetically strewn around in contrast to the high-rise skyline at different times of day, and the inexorable killing off of any even vaguely sympathetic character, no one can doubt that a) he’s in Hell and that b) he’s watching an Art Film. “Night at the Golden Eagle” notwithstanding, the two are not necessarily synonymous.