A German, an Irishman, and an Australian Walk into a Bar: The Million Dollar Hotel 23 Years Later

I consider it it true that everyone’s taste is different. Thank the Creator! How boring it would be to only have one point-of-view, only one person’s reality tunnel to find entertainment in, no wider world of stories and experiences. When it comes to the what I might want to watch, there are some films I like that other people also like. Sometimes I even like a popular film that a lot of people like. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I like films that almost no one else likes. Sometimes unpopular and weird films speak to me clearly in a language no one else seems to hear, and sometimes that rejected cornerstone can sometimes become a jewel in my collection. I’m sure this happens to you too.

I’m not sure where The Million Dollar Hotel would be slotted along that spectrum, but I do know that it only rates a 5.6 on IMDb and a lowly 24% on Rotten Tomatoes. I also know that despite his production company, Icon Entertainment, being the release, that (per IMDb) “Mel Gibson was so ashamed of the film that he fought to prevent it from being released to theaters in the U.S.” So there’s that. I have watched this film a number of times over the years, first on VHS, then dvd, and now blu-ray/streaming, and enjoyed it thoroughly each time. I think its heady camerawork and inspired casting and unique soundtrack pay off and help take the story to the next level. I’d like to take a minute to convince you to give it a chance and see if it’s one of those films that you would enjoy.

Travel back in time with me to the year 2000. Things weren’t the worst but things weren’t great in America; however, in hindsight, a year before 9/11 and decades before Trump, those days seem halcyon. At the time, though, it was stressful enough. Reagan-era policies had cut the safety net for countless people affected by mental illnesses, AIDS was still a killer, the cost of being a world power was still violent and expensive, and all of this with the hysterical echoes of Y2K fading into the background.

Also of note in this new millennium was a movie project fueled by the participation of three popular and successful non-Americans.: The Million Dollar Hotel, directed by Wim Wenders, co-written by Bono, starring by Mel Gibson, and all three kicking in some coin as producers. America held its own particular appeal for each of them:

> Wim Wenders’ fascination with our nation was already apparent, from his films My American Friend to Paris, Texas to The End of Violence, his attempts to capture its spirit were deeply dramatic, visually stunning, and heartfelt.

> I’ve read that Bono was inspired to come up with the idea for the film after the group shot the video for the song “Where the Streets Have No Name” there in the mid-1980s. You can pick up on his interest if you were a U2 fan at the time, and, in retrospect, his AIDS activism probably brought America (and Africa) into a finer focus for him.

> Mel just wanted to be a bigger star than he could be in his native Australia, later parlaying that success into directing his own films with their own more personal messages.

On it surface, The Million Dollar Hotel is a simple but quirky story of a fool in love, living in a hotel that’s more like a halfway house for misfits and the dispossessed, and how their lives are turned upside-down by an aggressive FBI agent investigating a possible murder. The joy of Bono and Nicholas Klein’s humor-filled script is that it strives hard – and succeeds more often than not – to work on a couple of other, more metaphorical, levels: it also the story of that fool being the noble Judas to an anti-Christ (thus satisfying all three gentlemen’s former- or radical-Catholic ethos), the institutions and systems of power that represent the real enemy, the struggle between Ego and Other, the mental health crisis specifically and the general vibe in America (as represented by one block in L.A.). Co-writer Nicholas Klein had worked with Wenders on his previous film The End of Violence, and Wenders’ fimmaker’s fascination with images is in full-effect, especially in the surveilling manner (television and security cameras, even the “snapshots” Mel Gibson makes upon meeting someone) that film was pre-occupied with.

Whereas many reviews cite this as one of Wenders’ “failures”, I would heartily disagree. I think he displays a particularly light and often poetic touch, making the joke-laden and somehwat hammy script actually funny while walking that fine line and maintaining a consistently high enough level of drama to make you care. The joy of the film is how it tells this story, the multitude of ways that Wenders constructs this sprawling enterprise, raising it up on the rickety stilts of a large and eclectic cast, some jaw-dropping cinematography, and a truly unique soundtrack.

I think this film is a masterclass in herding cats. As the man in charge, Wim wore many hats, but his main job would be directing, eliciting and framing the performances to best tell the tale, and to create that bond of empathy between us and them. Trying to get top-notch performances by a very large cast in x amount of time can be problematic, but here Wenders cleverly stages a number of scenes involving almost the entire cast, thus giving those characters who’ve enjoyed (or will enjoy) their own scenes to add to them, and those with less screentime still getting an opportunity to shine. I was thinking about Wes Anderson’s recent Asteroid City with it’s various plots and nested sub-plots and how this spread everybody too thin. There just wasn’t enough time to do justice to the scale of the story, whereas here everything takes place in one hotel over a brief period of time, and many scenes take place in common areas or rooms where a number of the cast are assembled.

The list is impressive: there are only three lead actors (Jeremy Davies, Milla Jovovich, and Mel Gibson) but a deep second line of talent, including Tito Larriva, Ellen Cleghorne, Bud Cort, Conrad Roberts, Donal Logue, and Harris Yulin.

Of particular note are:

>Jimmy Smits, who, like all the other residents of the hotel, is slightly mad, plays a Native American who is something of a leader to the group, and who at one point accuses God of being white.

> Peter Stormare, one of my favorites, is given a generously wide platform to showcase his real-life Beatles obsession and Liverpudlian accent. Beautifully performed and one of the first indications the audience has to level of lunacy to follow.

> Richard Edson, perfectly cast as the sweet but slightly shifty desk clerk, is always worth watching, from Do the Right Thing to Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation to The Sunshine State. His time is short overall but each appearance has heart and moves the plot forward at key moments. It was the finest kind of synchronicity to see him performing in NYC while I was rewatching his work here.

> Tim Roth’s uncredited cameo as the now dead artist Izzy is brief but effective, a memorable moment in both plot and film. Without spoiling anything, his moment is Bono’s inversion of Christian tropes, sort of an anti-Christ to Tom Tom’s “good” Judas. He is required by the story to appear arrogant, charming, and cruel, and nails it nicely.

> Amanda Plummer, who, let’s be honest, can get kind of screechy, is here used to brilliant effect as one of the craziest of the crazies, an aggressive woman deluded that she was the late artist Izzy’s one love. Her performances here are brief but spirited, and they add a certain spike of color only she can bring. Here Wim modulates her input so that she’s featured but not drowning anybody else out. If I had to cite the single most perfect casting among these hotel residents, it would be Ms. Plummer’s.

> Julian Sands, the late, great actor whose one major scene here as a major art critic who goes on a self-righteous rant about the Critic being the real Artist raises Bono’s prickly sentiments to level of wonder. I can think of no other performance by Mr. Sands where his British arrogance and self-assurance blazes so brightly. It may just be me, but I would consider this one scene alone worth the price of admission.

All the production departments bring their A game, from the set design, to the lighting, to the editing, it all feels well-orchestrated by Wenders, maybe even infused with a sense of playfulness. Though it looms large in importance to the film, the soundtrack is amazing simply because of the “house band” assembled for the project: late mutantrumpet player Jon Hassell, Brian Eno, and Daniel Lanois. Sure, there’s a U2 song (maybe two, please don’t make me check), but what these three come up with will never likely be duplicated. Eno was the chaotic attractor that knew everyone and was probably brought aboard through connection with Bono and interest from music-lover Wenders. As a master of atmospheres, it is a pleasure to experience his take on what constitutes a film soundtrack, especially when he provides a twist on the traditional chase scene music towards the end of the film. Jon Hassell is the secret weapon, though, adding a spacious and noirish feel to the proceedings. Like Wenders and Bono, he actually appears in the film and has more screen time than either one of them. In fact, his window is the first we peer in when Tom Tom jumps off the roof at the beginning.

Oh, wait, did I forget to mention that the film is told in flashback after starting with Tom Tom’s suicide? I guess now’s a good as time as any to mention that plot point. It would be fair to say that it’s tragic and Tom Tom is definitely portrayed as a victim? But what was the push? His love of Milla Jovovich’s character Eloise? His argument with Izzy? His own hand as he felt everything closing in on him? Untreated mental illness? It’s definitely a question I think about every viewing…while admiring the beauty of the visuals.

The cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is a joy to behold. Since 2000 he has moved from strength to strength, most recently lensing Indiana Jones and the Walker of Destiny, but here is was given considerably more license: dutch angles, Edward Hopper tableux, video images on television and surveillance cams, inventive wide shots and through-doorway – and -window shots maximizing the lone hotel set, slow motion, the whole grab bag.

It’s how Wenders employs this frolicsome nature and keeps it all fairly well reined in to tell the story that impresses. In fact, I would describe the opening shot as glorious: a high-speed aerial tracking shot of the L.A. skyline, turning into a centered composition that descends on to the roof of The Million Dollar Hotel, the whole thing feeling like a nod to Wings of Desire’s aerial angelic views of Berlin. Once on the roof, we watch Tom Tom prepare to leap, and slow motion and repeated shots add to the dreaminess of the shot. Once he jumps, his voiceover begins and as the tracking shot slowly falls, we peer into each life in each room.

I’ll end with the words that Tom Tom says at that moment:

“Wow, after I jumped it occurred to me, life is perfect, life is the best. It’s full of magic, beauty, opportunity, and television, and surprises, lots of surprises, yeah. And then there’s that stuff that everybody longs for, but they only real feel when it’s gone. All that just kinda hit me. I guess you don’t really see it all clearly when you’re – ya know – alive.”

Thank you.

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