Motel Life, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/12/13 14:53:00

"OK for a short stay."
3 stars (Average)

"The Motel Life" isn't quite a lot of filler packed around one great moment - it is, really, a watchable indie drama, so when the scene the audience will remember comes, they aren't likely to weigh that bit of good acting against a slog getting to it. This movie doesn't always quite come together, but it also never falls apart.

Frank Flanagan (Emile Hirsch) lives in a motel room in Reno, Nevada, and from the way the characters talk over the course of the movie, one gets the impression that he's been living in motel rooms for a long time. He's also been looking after his brother Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) since their mother died when they were just barely teenagers, and this time Jerry Lee has screwed up good, hitting a kid with his car and driving off. So it's time to find a new motel room, although disposing of the car and dealing with another result of Jerry Lee's instability makes Elko seem further off.

Why Elko? Well, the only girl Frank ever loved, Annie James (Dakota Fanning), lives there now, and while Jerry Lee will eventually point out that the bedtime stories Frank tells reveal some unresolved issues in a way that the audience can't miss, there's no-one else drawing them to any particular place rather than from one. We see through scattered flashbacks that Annie's family seemed to have lived the same sort of itinerant life as the Flanagans, and I can't help but wonder if maybe Willy Vlautin's original novel ges into it more, just based on the title. Instead, the Flanagans' history seems a bit like Frank's stories and Jerry Lee's pictures, anecdotes that each reflect the men that they became but which are separate from each other.

Those stories are at least presented with some nice flourish, as animated segments directed by Mike Smith (a journeyman who directed the Futurama title sequence). They're crude guy stuff with lots of sex and violence, but humorously over-the-top and either good-looking examples of traditional animation or fine imitations thereof. It's a nice match for the sense of time and place that the filmmakers give the movie - while The Motel Life doesn't feel like a period piece until the characters start mentioning the upcoming Tyson-Douglas fight, there is a distinct low-rent, gambling-fueled atmosphere that resonates even more once the 1990 setting is made clear. Directors Alan & Gabe Polsky know this environment, and they put the characters and audience there without getting hung up on unimportant details.

The cast isn't bad, either, although a little more from star Emile Hirsch might have gone a long way. He gives the sort of lived-in performance that the audience believes but where the movie might have gained by sacrificing a little realism for dramatics, although he never missteps. Stephen Dorff gets to be more obviously troubled, and demonstrates both the pros and cons of that model - he's got moments that seem to be too much, but he also gets to deliver the movie's gut-punch, and for that moment, not only is he giving a great performance, but Hirsch raises his game, too. Dakota Fanning mostly plays the same quietly damaged sort of character as Hirsch, but she does well at hinting at what Annie's been through until the movie shows it. Kris Kristofferson is a relaxed, perfect bit of stability as the closest thing Frank has to a father figure.

It is kind of weird to have him showing up in a movie where the characters refer to Willie Nelson so much (and where I'm pretty sure one of the end-credits songs is from the Highwaymen), and the movie doesn't always rise above that sort of incongruity and disjointedness. The Polskys do manage to create a fair number of fair to very good bits, and while "The Motel Life" isn't likely to often be the best movie on a cinema marquee or streaming-video menu, it's not a bad hour and a half if the description or any of the four main actors catches one's eye.

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