BERLIN 2000 REVIEW: Wenders "The Million Dollar Hotel" is a Heartbreaker
by Eddie Cockrell
(indieWIRE/2.14.2000) -- In the Spring of 2001, the shabby Tom Tom takes a dive off the Million Dollar Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, turning to wave at an unseen bystander just before launching himself from the roof. From the great beyond, he expresses remorse at his decision and explains what prompted his leap: it seems that when Skinner, an FBI agent in a neck brace, came to the hotel to investigate the death of the painter Izzy Goldkiss, his presence set off a chain reaction that affected each of the hotel's eccentric inhabitants, including literature-obsessed ex-hooker Eloise, the skittish and opportunistic Geronimo, self-proclaimed "Fifth Beatle" Dixie, and many of the other denizens who've landed in this cuckoo's nest and never flown out again. As Tom Tom and Eloise grow closer, Izzy's tar-smeared paintings become the toast of the town and Skinner steps up the pressure until the emerging facts of the case result in Tom Tom's tragic checkout.
As provocative as this premise may sound, the new fiction picture from the director of last year's shrewdly seductive documentary "Buena Vista Social Club" is a study in contrasts that may be conveniently encapsulated in a single question: is there a more exasperating filmmaker than Wim Wenders? Possessed of one of the great visionary intellects in contemporary cinema, he brings a thoughtful, precise craftsmanship to his work in both fiction and documentary forms. Yet for all the improvisational energy inherent in the American trash culture, which has inspired him since his earliest work, little of that zip actually makes it into the films themselves.
Thus, reading his filmography reminds one of the arbitrary fickleness of popular tastes: Wenders made "The American Friend," "Paris, Texas" and "Wings of Desire," but he also directed "False Movement," "Hammett," and "The End of Violence." Ironically, they seem almost interchangeable in their motifs, yet some click with the public and their times, and some don't. This puzzling track record reaches its apogee with Wenders' misunderstood masterpiece "Until the End of the World," which, perhaps, not coincidentally, has a single screening in Berlin in its 315-minute director's cut. And therein lies the problem with "The Million Dollar Hotel." Adapted from a long-gestated idea by U2's lead singer Bono and based on the same "Rattle and Hum"-era impressions of America that has inspired the band for so long, the film is an uneasy and lethargic mix of lowlife urban Americana and high-minded meditations on who we are and what makes us tick.
Wenders loves heights, and what they say about the moral elevations of people who perch there. But to most Americans, the film's milieu has little, if any, of this romantic tug; it's just downtown L.A. Yet through the eyes of the musician and the filmmaker it is a gray urban wonderland, and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael's luminous photography (subtly enhanced by Wenders' ever-groundbreaking use of digital effects and flourishes), massaged by the in-studio soundtrack composed on the spot by an all-star band featuring Bono, Brian Eno, Jon Hassell, Daniel Lanois and others, creates a world of weary dignity and noble dreams dashed.
Most of which is undone by the spotty acting, a function both of the fundamentally flawed story and a seriously miscalculated ensemble acting style. A key problem with the picture is the character of the mentally challenged Tom Tom, played by Jeremy Davies ("Saving Private Ryan," "Spanking the Monkey") with a catalogue of ticks and twitches that some may find endearing; others will be off-put to the point of distraction. For her role of Eloise, Milla Jovovich has been cleansed of all glamour and appeal. The film's best and most consistent performances are turned in by Mel Gibson as the comically conservative Skinner (his company Icon Entertainment co-produced the film) and a virtually unrecognizable Peter Stormare as Dixie, who sees the world through a haze of Beatles lyrics and conspiracy theories. Julian Sands does a quasi-Bono imitation as a greedy art dealer, and an uncredited Tim Roth, as the mysterious Izzy, has a single vertiginous scene with Davies.
In gathering the repertory company of losers and outcasts, Wenders has assembled a who's who cross-section of cult and popular performers, including Amanda Plummer ("Pulp Fiction"), Jimmy Smits ("NYPD Blue"), Gloria Stuart ("Titanic") and Bud Cort ("Harold and Maude"). Unfortunately, as appealing as this may sound, their acting styles never mesh as a unit, leaving most of their work together, as the residents frantically attempt to maximize their profits from the sale of Izzy's art, disorganized and palpably forced.
The cumulative effect of the picture is of strong, heartfelt truths just out of reach, and a seductive sense of wonder at -- and fondness towards -- the urban populace on the lowest rung of the economic ladder. But while that equation has equaled erratic acceptance from the American moviegoing public in the past (applause at the Berlinale's first press screening in their new Potsdamer Platz digs was scattered and respectful, with most scribes having ankled before the end of the credits), it also results in a work that, like the most fearlessly flawed films Wenders has made, cannot be dismissed. And that's exasperating.
[Eddie Cockrell is a Maryland-based film critic and consulting programmer whose work also appears regularly in Variety and nitrateonline.com.]