From its very first scene, the indie love story 28 Hotel Rooms has credibility issues. In the opening scene, the nameless leading man (played by Chris Messina from Ruby Sparks and HBO's The Newsroom) humblebrags to the woman he's starting an affair with (Marin Ireland, Side Effects), telling her how Prince played the release party for his debut novel. Now, depending on what you know about Prince and/or book launches for a first-time writer (or any writer), this revelation may not cause you a moment's pause; if you're like me, however, and know there is not a chance in hell the Purple One would ever play such an event, you may start to wonder how much you're going to be able to believe the 80 minutes that follow.
It may seem like a small detail, but 28 Hotel Rooms is a movie that's all about small details, and the flippancy with which such "facts" are treated is indicative of a larger problem, one that causes 28 Hotel Rooms to fail to reach its potential. Written and directed by Matt Ross, who is perhaps best known as an actor thanks to a recurring role on Big Love, 28 Hotel Rooms is a smartly conceived two-person drama. The basic premise is that Messina and Ireland meet in a hotel bar and cheat on their respective partners together. A relationship of sorts develops, albeit one that never leaves the confines of twenty-eight different hotel rooms. Over the course of an indeterminate amount of time, the pair have a series of meet-ups. We watch their emotions ebb and flow, we watch them fuck and fight, and we also hear small snatches of life detail so that we can chart how they change. He gets married, his second book fails, he becomes a teacher; she gets pregnant, enjoys being a mom, has issues with career and home, etc.
All told, if each hotel room was to get equal time, Ross would only have three minutes to give to each one of them. The key to his film are the moments he picks. The conversations he chooses to relate, the disagreements he decides are important, the make-ups and the connections--these are all how he builds his portrait of two people who may or may not be in love. There's a lot of sex, but the sex is really secondary, the byproduct of the clandestine, enclosed meetings. Time passes without much nod to the outside world. The upside is that it's all about these two people; the downside is that it's all about these two people. You may find her shallow, and he is often priggish and infuriating. And given that we are not privy to their lives when they are away from each other except for what Ross sneaks into their conversation, we as an audience are denied an opportunity to ever get to know this couple. This is partially by design, and a conceit necessary to the movie's core concept--they don't know each other as they are outside of hotels either. At the same time, chances are they've delved deeper than we are allowed to eavesdrop. That's where the larger issue of credible details comes into play. It makes me wonder how much thought Matt Ross put into constructing these characters. Did he just build the barest of skeletons and trust the rest would work itself out? Viewers are afforded details necessary to the emotional arc of 28 Hotel Rooms, but little else.
Luckily, that emotional arc is effective. Messina and Ireland go into territories that seem natural and authentic, developing desires and resentments that make sense for what they are going through. At times, we wish they'd linger a little longer on some of the heavier topics, but the efficiency with which Ross builds his movie echoes the unstoppable nature of the relationship. These lovers are caught up in their affair and, as the ending suggests, no matter how much they try, they'll never get out. There is a sense that they are powerless to change or move on, even when they resolve to do so. They are too afraid to rip off the band-aid. Just as the first scene will be your litmus test for how much you are ready to accept 28 Hotel Rooms, your reaction to the last one will determine whether or not you trust how you may have been moved by any of what transpired in between.
It's actually a little ironic that a movie that is so reliant on technique is also so sketchy on what goes underneath. Ross and cinematographer Doug Emmett make use of their small spaces to create an intimate, yet never claustrophobic, staging area. Emmett shot similar material in Dana Adam Shapiro's Monogamy (also starring Chris Messina), but while that movie was gritty and immediate, here there is something almost beautifully unnatural about how he lights the hotel rooms--which, anyone who has stayed in hotels knows, are an inorganic environment. The magic that Emmett, along with Messina and Ireland, conjures in these sterile confines is generated from without, not from within.
Referring to Messina and Ireland by their actual names rather than any character names is also unnatural, bucking the critical norm, but it makes sense. And not just because their characters never exchange names on camera. 28 Hotel Rooms is essentially an actor's showcase. Ross does his colleagues a boon by giving them this area in which to work, and both performers show considerable skill in navigating the narrative outline and finding the emotional resonance in each scenario. Their ease with one another is a big selling point, and Ross clearly lets them go off script from time to time. An under-the-covers conversation between the pair where Messina turns the sweet nothings on an observation that Ireland's nostrils flare when she laughs feels like improv, it's too in the moment to be planned. If it was planned, then kudos all around. You people are good.
Good people in a good movie, one with a strong ending that more than makes up for the quibbles that arise on the way. Like going on a few bad dates before you realize you actually like the person in spite of it all. That's the sum total of 28 Hotel Rooms.
English subtitles are included.