You will know everything that is going to happen in Across the Hall in the first half hour. Not because I think you're a smart cookie, but because novice director Alex Merkin tells you every important plot detail right from the get-go. Sure, there are a couple of twists that pop up in the last third, but they are so unbelievable, so ludicrous, I'd almost wager they weren't part of the original script. Merkin has based this on a short film he made in 2005, so I'd put money that last hour was invented merely to pad out the running time.
The gist of the story is this: June (the late Brittany Murphy) and Terry (Danny Pino) are engaged, but Terry is convinced that June is cheating on him. He follows her to a hotel, manages to get the room across the hall from her, and while he waits, he calls his best friend Julian (Mike Vogel) to tell him that he stole his gun and that he's worried he might use it. Julian, of course, freaks out but...no, no, no, it's not for the reasons you think!
What follows is a fairly stupid, overlong unraveling of a fairly stupid, overlong narrative, one that offers no surprises, no shocks, not even a slight nervous tension. I am actually a fan of twisted, out-of-order narratives, but they have to have a reason for being that is greater than "Wouldn't it be cool if...." Across the Hall has no such reason. The pretzel structure is a cheat. Its only use is as window dressing that Merkin and his screenwriter, Jesse Mittelstadt, try to use to cover up the fact that they haven't bothered to invent any real characters here. Take the same basic plot from Across the Hall and arrange it in the proper order of events, and it's wafer thin. There isn't enough there to sustain a movie on its own, but put some real people in it, people who feel and have lives and a purpose, and you can avoid the shuck and jive and actually make a decent crime drama out of it.
I decided to take a look at Across the Hall because I wanted to remember Brittany Murphy. When the actress died last month, I was saddened to realize that I hadn't seen any of her work since she was in Sin City five years ago. Murphy was so delightful in Clueless and Girl, Interrupted, it's depressing that her career over the last several years took such a wrong turn. How did this promising young performer end up stuck in straight-to-DVD-ville? Though she has little to do in Across the Hall, she does it well. Her early scenes in particular are good reminders of what a sweet, quirky personality she had. She's cute with the hotel clerk (Brad Greenquist), when she gets to be amused by how dumb it all is, and she's actually quite touching in the one rather bland scene of intimacy between her and Terry. It's that Brittany Murphy je ne sais quoi: by virtue of being herself, she brings something to a script that wasn't really there.
The other roles are equally as insubstantial, they just take longer to get nowhere. The other actors don't know what to do with this mess. Mike Vogel, who you might remember dying on the bridge in Cloverfield (oh, what I'd give for a giant monster now!), is actually all right as Julian. His primary job is to keep moving and stay just this side of completely losing his cool. Terry is the showier role, he's the guy who is off his rocker, but Danny Pino, a regular on the show Cold Case, doesn't have it in him. You can actually see him overthinking every move he makes on screen. It's like watching an audition for a student film.
A student film or a cheap indie short, like the original Across the Hall. (Which, as it turns out, starred Adrian Grenier from Entourage, so this movie actually could have been worse.) Alex Merkin, who also edited the picture, is doing everything he can to make that film school education pay off, and for all the flaws Across the Hall has, the direction is actually fairly competent. Merkin's biggest problem is he hasn't yet learned to tone things down. His camera moves way too much, and the film is lit all wrong. The set-up at the hotel comes off as if it were lifted out of a quirky horror film rather than a stylish crime picture. It's too bright, too hot, when it should be murky and chilled. Bobby Tahouri's music doesn't help, either. The composer never leaves a moment alone, he's always right there to tell us how he thinks we should feel. It's like everyone here is trying too hard to show off, and so it looks like Across the Hall was made by apprehensive amateurs rather than confident professionals. You've got talent, boys, next time trust it.
The final shot of Across the Hall shows a character walking away, and as he does, a movie theatre marquee comes into focus. It's advertising the bizarre 1947 film noir Nightmare Alley, maybe Tyrone Power's best movie. Do yourself a favor and rent that instead.
Subtitle choices are Spanish and English Closed Captioning.
There is also the theatrical trailer for Across the Hall.
By the way, though I say at the start of this review that you can get everything that happens in Across the Hall in the first half hour of the movie, there is actually a much quicker way. Just watch the DVD menu. It shows the whole story in under a minute!