THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Ethan Hawke fancies himself a poet. In addition to being the star of such films as Training Day, Gattaca, and Reality Bites, he's also a novelist and, with Chelsea Walls a director. Like Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh's film The Anniversary Party, Chelsea Walls is an actor's film with long, meandering monologs and no discernible plot. A huge cast (including Uma Thurman, Kris Kristopherson, Vincent D'Onofrio, Natasha Richardson, and Tuesday Weld) floats through the film, babbling on in vague, pseudo-meaningful language about how bad life is.
There is something very self-indulgent in this type of filmmaking. Hawke and writer Nicole Burdette (who also wrote the play on which the film is based) want to show us every utterance of these bedraggled characters. They think that just by setting the proceedings in the Chelsea Hotel they can make the work profound. The Chelsea Hotel has been home to its share of self-obsessed artists: Writers like Dylan Thomas and Thomas Wolfe lived there and Sid killed Nancy there (that's the only celebrity run-in the hotel doesn't celebrate with a plaque.) Hawke's film takes Thomas' poetry as its jump-off point, quoting liberally from his work. Still, the overall impression is of an inexperienced young poet imbuing every non sequitur with enormous dramatic weight. Kristopherson comes closest to defining his character, but that's because he's playing a type: the rugged, hard-drinking (although tenuously sober) American writer living in squalor but working on a masterpiece. His prose is heard fleetingly, over the shoulder, and it doesn't give much of an impression. Still, the actor's craggy, creased face projects history, something he's always good at. Jazz singer Jimmy Scott delivers a haunting performance of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy." Steve Zahn is typically solid as a mid-western visitor both wowed and unimpressed with the hotel.
Other actors have less to work with. Robert Sean Leonard's musician may be dying on the inside but his music sounds bland and sappy. Natasha Richardson's character is completely undeveloped, appearing in the beginning and the end only to deliver some completely obtuse lines. Rosario Dawson and Mark Webber make an interesting young couple, but their relationship hasn't been sketched out at all. And if you didn't know that Thurman is Hawke's wife you would have figured it out. Her twitchy, mannered performance as a confused, hesitant shut-in drips with Method showiness.
Ultimately the biggest problem with the film (because, let's face it, actors will always make movies like this) is its dreary visuals. Grim, gritty texture is one thing, but the smeary quality of the shot-on-digital cinematography is often too ugly. Some scenes, particularly those that feature a lot of cool blue (primarily Dawson and Webber's scenes) fare better since the colors don't bleed as much, but many of the sets come off as a mess.
As I said, the digital video cinematography is often pretty ugly. Still, the widescreen transfer has been handled well. It comes from the film print, not the original video source, which helps make it look a little more like a film than a video. Some overly darks sequences get a bit lost in the murk.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 tracks sound pretty good. The score by Jeff Tweedy (of the band Wilco) has a dissonant, jangly beauty at times that helps create a moody atmosphere that the film sorely needs.
Interviews with director Hawke and star Leonard are included. Hawke in particular comes off as pretentious and smug. He's much more personable in his audio commentary, presumably because he has a film to work with.
Chelsea Walls doesn't offer much to grab hold of on an emotional level. The characters are vague and uninvolving. Still, the huge cast is bound to have appeal for a lot of people for whom a rent will be enough.
Email Gil Jawetz at firstname.lastname@example.org