By Michael Gray
The mutual admiration between U2 and German film director Wim Wenders dates back to the early years of the last decade, when the Dublin band contributed to the soundtracks of his films “Faraway, So Close” and “Until the End of the World.” Wenders, renowned for elegiac portrayals of human longing and wide-open spaces that matched the spirit of much of U2’s songwriting, returned the favor by collaborating on the band’s videos. So when U2 frontman Bono decided to get involved in the writing end of the film business, his old pal Wim seemed the right choice to bring his story to the big screen.
From “Paris Texas” to “Buena Vista Social Club,” Wenders has given music a prime role in his films, and Bono’s narrative concept, a murder mystery set in a flophouse populated by junkies, hookers and a bizarre range of misfits, had a rock n’ roll sensibility that appealed to the director. Bono developed the story for “The Million Dollar Hotel” with Nicholas Klein, screenwriter of Wenders’s less-than-stellar “The End of Violence,” and the final writing credit belongs to Klein. Bono is modestly listed as “co-story creator” and producer.
“The Million Dollar Hotel” is shot on location in the Frontier Hotel in downtown L.A., a relic of 1930s grandeur that now accommodates uninsured outpatients with nowhere else to go. Bono’s story unfolds among its residents as a murder mystery that triggers a love story. When a junkie artist dies in a fall from the roof of the rundown hotel, his father (a billionaire media magnate, naturally) refuses to believe it was suicide, and sics an FBI attack dog named Skinner (Mel Gibson) on the unfortunate denizens of the flophouse to find out who killed his son. Skinner bullies and manipulates the hotel’s paranoid personnel to find out who did it, pushing the softheaded bellhop (Jeremy Davies) into an affair with brittle-nerved hooker Eloise (Milla Jovovich) and showing himself to be every bit as demented as the garish, toupeed and rouged derelicts that he hounds.
Ten minutes into the film, a half-alert viewer can see that these delusional schizophrenic shut-ins are not Wim Wenders characters. They’re David Lynch people, and this is “Twin Peaks” transported from the bracing air of the Pacific Northwest to the fetid smog of L.A. Lynch, something of an eccentric himself, excels at portraying life’s downtrodden losers sympathetically. Wenders typically observes his characters from a discreet distance, mirroring their detachment from each other and the world through which they pass.
In “The Million Dollar Hotel,” Wenders never gets past the bars of the cage to really engage these carny sideshow freaks, and his passivity as a director allows his cast to overact to the point of embarrassment. Prominent offenders include Peter Stormare as Dixie, a deluded ’60s burnout who believes he was the fifth Beatle (nobody tells him that George Martin, Pete Best and Tony Sheridan already have that gig sewn up), Amanda Plummer as a wound-up ho who believes she was engaged to the murder victim, and a jittery Jimmy Smits as a cartoon Native American. All three are particularly cringe-inducing, and a more hands-on director would have reined them in or given them the hook. But the biggest Boar’s Head ham of them all is Mel Gibson, as FBI ramrod Skinner. Wedged into a neckbrace and sporting scars on his back from a superfluous third arm (don’t ask), he spends the entire film trying out a wide range of grimaces, shouting maniacally at his suspects, and essaying bizarre investigative tactics like flooding the lobby to get them to ‘fess up.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
The film arrives in the U.S. lumbered with Gibson’s dismissive assessment that it’s “boring as a dog’s ass.” He’s not wrong. He seems to know one end of a dog from the other, but as the film’s only certified and bankable star, he must shoulder a good deal of the blame for this appalling mess.
In a kinder world, “The Million Dollar Hotel” would be allowed to expire quietly and with dignity, without even risking a second opinion by putting it out on video. It would receive oblique mention in future Wenders retrospectives, and Bono would go back to what he does best, fronting the greatest living rock band in the world. But in the real world, celebrity egos, distributor cupidity and blind optimism convene to delude all parties involved that face can still be saved and money can still be made by screening the film in the U.S.
More’s the pity that the story is not as well-crafted as U2’s songs or as beautiful and graceful as Wenders’s best films. A critical and commercial success for Bono on his first film outing would encourage U2 to fling more
of their money at film directors, giving a boost to Ireland’s ailing international film profile. But “The Million Dollar Hotel” has already been torn to pieces by critics in Europe, booed by audiences at the Berlin Film
Festival awards ceremony, and disowned by its star, so it’s unlikely to fare any better this side of the Atlantic. The undaunted U2 faithful can bear witness to Wenders’s Mala Vista anti-social club beginning Friday, Feb. 2, but they’d better make it quick, it’s not going to last long.