In movies, there is honesty, and there is truth. Forgive filmmakers for getting them confused, particularly in the post-indie world, where low-budget strategies bled into the mainstream, allowing films to have an emotional immediacy and verisimilitude that soon gave way to simple re-creation of real life. This has resulted in a certain honesty, much like that portrayed in “28 Hotel Rooms,” but the art form has evolved too much for that honesty to still be confused for truth.
Capturing the life of a consistent dalliance between two young individuals, “28 Hotel Rooms” never gives us context or insight into how these two professionals exactly came together. The empty assumption, given by the increasing affections between the two, suggests what we’re seeing is a chronological account of a relationship. At first, she (Merin Ireland) resists his (Chris Messina) charms, which involve incessant talkiness and aggressive body language, mostly in an attempt to pry whatever he can from a woman frozen in silence, sensually withholding.
After a third or fourth hotel room date (we never leave the hotel, and we get the sense they don’t either), she opens up, and the two share flirty back and forths. The sex is matter-of-fact, and the film generates slightly more heat, as familiar couples often do, when the clothing is back on. She remains somewhat demure, as we learn there is a Mister back at home, and a late admission that she considers herself a “bad person” is met with a quizzical stare by her male companion. Though we learn he is also beholden to a girlfriend (apparently not nearly as serious), he can’t resist every opportunity he can get to disrobe this girl and chat her ear off. He’s boastful about his bedroom prowess and even comments upon the aesthetic pleasures of his own member, and the knowledge he’s cuckolding another man even emboldens him as the hotel room bills stack up.
Lilywhite and modestly pretty, Woman (yes, the characters are called Man and Woman, because of course they are) finds herself drawn to New York because of conferences for a mundane computer programming job that seems to bore the life out of her. He has no such excuse, being a local celebrating the spoils of a best-selling book, one that even she feels free to describe as airport fodder. These jobs manifest themselves as differing life philosophies during one heated conversation, where he drunkenly chastises her for not creating, spouting conspiratorial suggestions about the nature of her job versus his own tendency to “create.”
This conversation is notable because it happens well into their affair, when they’ve already, willingly or otherwise, revealed their true feelings towards each other. The very act of saying the “l” word is a technicality, since both characters have poor poker faces, but you can see that comfort level stretched during this would-be intellectual clash. Of course, perhaps there should be quotation marks around ‘intellectual,’ as he rambles about his own bloated self-importance, and her feeble protestations attempt to depoliticize the conversation not only seem distressingly empty, but also a pretty oblivious attempt to find common ground with him, one that fails miserably and reveals this egomaniac’s anger management issues.
There is honesty in this relationship, the way that his need for validation folds into hers, and how it evolves, even as her home away from these hotel rooms begins to take a more definitive shape. Both are in denial, both are hurting the ones they love, and both secretly believe it could never work between them. Despite this being a dialogue-heavy affair, most of this is expressed through the actors’ physicality: Ireland is like a wilting flower, mousy and cowed by the presence of her gentleman caller. Messina, a skim-milk actor with limited range, overcompensates with grandstanding and overzealousness — he’s been labeled a romantic leading man by indie Hollywood because of his broad shoulders and unthreatening five o’clock shadow, but he only makes an impression when his figurative impotence becomes forceful violence, and even then, the camera turns away from his face.
Which may be a product of restlessness than anything else. By the end of “28 Hotel Rooms,” the camera is fast-forwarding through dalliances. The meetings between the two become more stressed, more contentious, and when they end in tears and yelling matches, they only yield to these two junkies desiring another fix of the touch from each other’s skin. They’re truly rotten company, the both of them, and while there is honesty in this, is there truth? Or is it merely another indie picture where actors, writers, directors and crew get together to simulate our worst traits as human beings? The rewards for that are similar to wading into deep rivers to catch guppies. There are no points for simply holding up a mirror to our worst tendencies.
The structure of the film recalls “Room In Rome,” a spicy Spanish import from years ago which had a similar story take place within the walls of a hotel. Beyond the difference in sexual orientation (the leads were two girls), “Room In Rome” tempted “honesty” by featuring two unusually articulate leading characters, with an approach that leaned on honest titillation and a touch of magical realism. Considering the subject matter, the film was branded with an NC-17 and considered lightweight “spank material” for undiscerning viewers, quickly shuffled to Netflix Hell. You wonder if Hollywood is trying to make a point: sex is joyless, and best experienced by recognizable, and recognizably obnoxious people. [D]