Much like a day at a topnotch spa, as experienced by someone else, Maria Sole Tognazzi’s ultra-sedate romantic comedy “A Five Star Life” is full of aesthetic sophistication and luxurious ambiance, but its pleasures are all secondhand, and the whole endeavor is too starved of incident to really stick in the memory. A character sketch that rarely bothers to fill in much detail or color, the film follows the joyless journeys of a detail-oriented hotel critic, whose fetish for order is mildly disrupted by the messier lives of her friends and family back home. More effective as a resort showcase than as an emotionally involving narrative, this Italian import was a sleeper hit back home, and might attract modest Stateside attention from Europhiles and Travel Channel subscribers.
If nothing else, protagonist Irene (Margherita Buy, winner of best actress at last year’s David di Donatello awards) introduces audiences to a profession few would have known, or even imagined, actually existed. Employed by a hotel-rating agency, Irene spends her life jetting off to Switzerland, Morocco, France and Germany to test out five-star hotels as a “mystery guest.” Unbeknownst to the staff, she wields the power to dock that all-important fifth star should accommodations not meet her ruthless standards.
As glamorous as her job sounds, her time on duty appears largely monotonous, as she is paid to experience the sort of pleasures other people splurge on, yet must always remain on guard to avoid actually enjoying them too much. (Many a film critic might sympathize.) Irene is nothing if not methodical, giving every crevice the white-glove treatment, timing interactions with the hotel staff, sniffing the linens and even testing the temperature on room-service wine. Fortysomething, single, childless and evidently without any hobbies or interests, Irene is so suited to the job that she’s asked to take on even more work to compensate for colleagues whose fuller lives tend to interfere.
While back home in Rome, however, Irene consorts with an array of far less orderly associates. Her sister (Fabrizia Sacchi) is a married, harried flibbertigibbet constantly misplacing her keys and losing control of her daughters; and her old flame Andrea (Stefano Accorsi) — with whom Irene enjoys a close friendship that seems to demand further explanation – is preparing to become a father with a former one-night stand (Alessia Barela), which Irene worries will move him further away from her already emaciated circle of acquaintances.
There are certainly things to admire about Tognazzi’s treatment of her subject. While Irene is clearly lonely and unfulfilled, the director never begs for sympathy for a character whose biggest problem is an unfettered excess of creature comforts. The story’s general avoidance of outright conflict or loud disruption also seems in line with its protagonist, and Buy delivers a performance of such extreme control and frosty reserve that an American remake would more likely cast her as the snobbish hotel concierge rather than as a guest.
Yet the film is all but begging for a shot of adrenaline — or at least a strong room-service shot of espresso — by the time Irene encounters a British feminist theorist (Lesley Manville) on a trip to Berlin. Lively, lusty and loquacious, Irene’s new friend provides a nice glimpse of what an engaged, fully examined life actually looks like. Sadly, she sticks around only long enough to dispense some overly on-the-nose bits of wisdom.
For a film about ultra-luxe accommodations, “A Five Star Life” certainly looks the part, distinguished by crisp, precise lensing and lush production design. And, like an in-and-out hotel guest, the pic’s brisk running time never outstays its welcome.