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Hotel humanity
Wim Wenders’s million-dollar movie


The Million Dollar Hotel is a million-dollar mystery. It’s a two-hour investigation into who pushed Israel Goldkiss, son of billionaire media mogul Stanley Goldkiss, off the roof of the Million Dollar, a transient hotel buried among the skyscrapers of downtown LA. The bigger mystery, though, is why this masterpiece, another of Wim Wenders’s “vertical road movies” following on Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close!, hasn’t been able to find a room anywhere. It premiered at last year’s Berlin Film Festival but didn’t show up in New York and Los Angeles till this spring, and we’re seeing it in Boston only because the Brattle has booked it for a weekend.

Of course, it didn’t exactly break out in Berlin: the opening-night audience wasn’t overwhelmed, and the critics (me included) gave it middling marks. Wenders’s LA is a stylized, black-comic fantasyland on the order of the one Alan Rudolph created for Breakfast of Champions (which also bombed); if you take it literally, the movie looks naive, even silly. The director coddles the hotel’s lovable misfits (most of them mental cases who’ve fallen through the cracks of the welfare system) while making sitting ducks out of establishment icons like the LAPD, television news, and the art world; and he’s still rhapsodizing about life instead of living it. But The Million Dollar Hotel breaks new ground in Wenders’s theme of human angels falling to earth. It’s three new U2 songs that explore that theme. It’s got Mel Gibson in his best performance since The Year of Living Dangerously. It’s even got, in its opening sequence, a voiceover narrator who commits suicide.

That would be Tom Tom (Jeremy Davies), who takes a flying leap off the hotel roof and on way down realizes, without regret, “After I jumped, it occurred to me, life is the best, life is perfect, full of magic, beauty, opportunity . . . and lots of surprises.” Like the homage Wenders pays to Hitchcock’s Rear Window via the windows Tom Tom looks into while he’s falling. Grounded, Tom Tom relates the happenings of the past two weeks, after the death of his best friend, junkie and poet Izzy. Goldkiss père (Harris Yulin) has brought in FBI Special Agent Detective J.D. Skinner (Mel Gibson), a cross between Joe Friday and Hannibal Lecter, to solve the case. Izzy’s friends, all suspects, include Geronimo (Jimmy Smits), who thinks he’s head of the Navaho nation; John Dixie (Peter Stormare), “who was in a music band called the Beatles, only they didn’t know”; maybe-streetwalker Eloise (Milla Jovovich), whose name reminds us of another hotel, the Plaza; ditzy Vivien (Amanda Plummer), who claims to have been Izzy’s fiancée; den mother Jessica (Gloria Stuart, treasurable as ever); and alcoholic Shorty (Bud Cort). Having mistakenly given Izzy credit for roomie Geronimo’s tar paintings, the media — notably Channel 6 anchor Jean Smith (Charlayne Woodard) — anoint him the “painter saint” and the art world descends, promising to make our misfits millionaires. Skinner — who we learn was born near a nuclear facility and had a arm growing out of his back — shakes it all up by arresting Geronimo for the “murder”; our heroes try to save their bacon by getting Tom Tom to confess to it, whereupon Skinner punctures their dreams, and the dealer’s and the media’s, by respelling “tar.”

In the end we do find out what happened to Izzy, but that’s secondary to Tom Tom’s story of how he was able to connect with Eloise; how that changed, if only for a moment, everything; and how Tom Tom made everything out of Izzy’s nothing. The angels of Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close fell to earth to live; Tom Tom goes to ground in order to preserve his moment. In its typically Wenders way the love story is a failure: Tom Tom on his suicide dash is just one more man running away from a woman. But if a moment can be worth a million, then The Million Dollar Hotel is a million-dollar movie.

See “Off the Record,” on page 22, for Jeffrey’s review of the Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack.

Issue Date: May 24-31, 2001