Any kind of hardboiled film noir confection, released in 2012 with a straight face, is going to be something of a put on. Especially if its filmed digitally, which robs black-and-white (the favored presentation of film noir) of its velveteen lushness, instead replacing it with a flat, artificial haze. Still, "Hotel Noir," the latest film from writer/director Sebastian Gutierrez (who is also Carla Gugino's boyfriend, which might be his mightiest accomplishment), is a surprisingly effective, enjoyable romp. It's pretty earnest (almost too earnest) attempt at a straightforward film noir, with minor, wink-wink-nudge-nudge deviations and an impressively game cast. If given the opportunity, it might not be a bad idea to check into "Hotel Noir."
Shot in 15 days on a shoestring budget of $300,000, "Hotel Noir" primarily concerns a shadowy private detective figure named Felix (played by Rufus Sewell, channeling his gravely "Dark City" persona), hiding out from assorted underworld characters in a Hollywood hotel, waiting for one or all of them to find him and gun him down. In the course of the movie's running time, though, are a number of satellite stories and characters, who eventually interlock in ways that aren't entirely clear (the details remain fuzzy). For such a small budget, too, Gutierrez has managed to assemble quite the cast of hotel inhabitants. There's Danny DeVito as a shower door repairman who also works on portraits of peoples' pets; Rosario Dawson as a hotel maid who dresses like a superhero (she gets some of the movie's biggest laughs, particularly in a speech about how hotel management misconstrue her narcolepsy for thievery); Malin Akerman as a showgirl with the appropriately femme fatale name of Swedish Mary; Carla Gugino as a nightclub performer; Robert Forster as another dubious detective type; and Kevin Connolly as a villainous gangster.
The back story for the various characters, and their connections to each other, is slowly revealed throughout the course of the film, with the narrative spinning backwards and forwards, frequently borrowing from Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing" (towards the end it also starts lifting shots from it wholesale) and other influential film noirs of the period. The movie also sometimes pauses to comment on itself, as in the moment when Akerman, in voiceover film noir mode, asks herself (and, by extension, the audience), "Is everyone as bad a narrator as me?" But for the most part "Hotel Noir" plays it completely straight, with men in fedoras pacing around sparsely furnished rooms (hey, $300,000 only goes so far), taking stock and making note of all of the classics of the noir genre, both in literature and film, while forging ahead with a mostly new story concocted from those bits.
For the most part it works, in large part due to the commitment of the actors, particularly Sewell, who does most of the legwork by having the most weighty backstory and for carrying the story forward by interviewing the other characters in the hotel (he also has to do a fair amount of husky-voiced narration). With the exception of Connolly, who looks like a little kid playing dress up in his dad's old-fashioned suit (is his mustache actually eyeliner?), the actors do a great job of playing it straight while letting the audience know that they're in on the gag. To their credit (particularly Akerman and Gugino), they are able to provide the characters with a certain amount of emotional depth, so that you're not left watching two-dimensional cartoons but rather living, breathing people.
Gutierrez has had an interesting career, starting off writing and directing a small crime film called "Judas Kiss" before moving on to big budget genre studio writing assignments like "Gothika," "The Eye," "Snakes on A Plane," and "Disturbia." In the last few years, though, he's gone back to writing and directing, mostly low budget doodles like "Women in Trouble," "Elektra Luxxx," and the bizarre "internet movie" "Girl Walks Into a Bar." These movies were interesting but not entirely coherent, instead dwelling on a particular obsession of the filmmaker (in the case of "Women in Trouble" and "Elektra Luxxx," the same cheapo seventies genre movies that Quentin Tarantino adores), but largely at the cost of narrative coherence or riveting storytelling. What makes "Hotel Noir" so refreshing is that, while it's very clear that Gutierrez is being indulgent and obsessive, it never acts to distance the viewer from the material. Whether or not you've steeped in film noir lore, "Hotel Noir" still plays like an enjoyable little thriller. To his credit, Gutierrez knows how to make the most out of his tiny budget, and shoots sequences of two people talking as snappily as he stages several musical numbers, which might have been this reviewer's favorite parts of the movie. Even with minimal choreography, these musical sequences sparkle. It's enough to wish he had incorporated more, although they do dangerously tip the entire enterprise towards out-and-out pastiche. But hey, maybe the danger is part of the fun.
If "Hotel Noir" has a problem, it's that its screenplay, which is more twisted up and tangled than a shopping mall pretzel, fails to make much logical sense after a certain point. Twist after twist, flashback within flashback, newly revealed character relationships; it all piles up pretty quick and pretty clumsily. At a certain point, towards the end, subtlety leaves the building altogether and then there's the ending that's suitably grim for the genre but maybe a little too bleak for the film. Happy endings aren't handed out easily in film noir, and once you check into the "Hotel Noir," it's hard to check out. [B]