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Worth A Look: 26.09%
Pretty Bad: 8.7%
Total Crap: 13.04%

1 review, 17 user ratings

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Hotel New Hampshire, The
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by Andrew Howe

"Unlock the bear within."
3 stars

Some authors write their novels with one eye on the typewriter and the other on the movie rights, but John Irving won’t be joining the club anytime soon. His left-field narratives test the talents of even the most accomplished scriptwriters, but the unexpected success of The World According to Garp gave director Tony Richardson the excuse he needed to bring The Hotel New Hampshire to the screen. It was a glorious conceit, and Richardson’s unshakeable belief in his own better judgement spawned a film that veers between brilliance and banality with an almost manic enthusiasm.

The film starts life as a simple tale of a family-run guesthouse in the 1950’s, but it soon becomes apparent that we’re in the company of a wildly unpredictable exercise with a definite modern-day sensibility. Beau Bridges plays a mild-mannered patriarch who spends his days in a state of perpetual bewilderment, watching helplessly as his strong-willed offspring defy his attempts to foster domestic harmony. He doesn’t know it, but his extended clan presages four decades of cultural norms – John (Rob Lowe) is a sensitive jock who’s firmly rooted in the 50’s, Frannie (Jodie Foster) is a 60’s exponent of sexual experimentation, Frank (Paul McCrane) would have been right at home in the San Francisco scene of the 70’s, and Lilly (Jennifer Dundas) is an introspective little soul whose pseudo-philosophical meditations would have gone down a treat in the self-help era of the 80’s. The script follows these diverse characters from the hills of New England to the mean streets of Vienna, charting their personal growth against a backdrop of sporadic violence, rampant sexuality and random tragedy.

Rob Lowe’s moment in the sun was mercifully brief, and at the time of the film’s release he was still a relative unknown (it was only a year after Class brought him to the attention of undiscerning casting directors the world over). The Stand proved he wasn’t entirely incompetent, but Richardson’ script forces him to play the straight man to a cast of lively supporting players. He rises to the challenge by doing his best Keanu Reeves impersonation, and his inability to express realistic emotion leaves us with an uninspiring performance that set the tone for the next twenty years.

Foster has always projected the image of a woman wise beyond her years, so it comes as something of a shock to realise that by 1984 she’d achieved the ripe old age of twenty-two. It would be another four years before The Accused transformed her into the accomplished character actress we know and love (at the time she hadn’t appeared in anything worth mentioning since Freaky Friday), but her performance bears the mark of a stepping-stone to greatness. Frannie delights in flouting conventional morality, and the cumulative effect of her soulless liaisons leads her to adopt a jaundiced view of interpersonal relations. Foster’s believable depiction of this haunted and self-destructive individual lends the film the required weight, and watching her overshadow Lowe at every opportunity pays its own unique dividends.

Most of the remaining performances fall on the right side of serviceable – Bridges slips into his usual low-key and personable persona, Wilford Brimley plays another gruff but warm-hearted old-timer, Nastassja Kinski provides an appealing source of background decoration, and Matthew Modine works on his slimy side to good effect. However, the big surprise is Paul McCrane, whose sensitive portrayal of the eccentric but loveable Frank earned him nothing better than a bit part in Robocop and a decade in the wilderness.

The film’s primary theme is encapsulated in the phrase “Keep passing the open windows”, a pithy sentiment that becomes a mantra for the beleaguered characters. It’s telling us that we should always go on living regardless of the cost, trusting in our innate resilience to see us through, for you never know what you’ll miss if you leave before the final curtain. Irving proves the point by putting his creations through the wringer, assaulting them with senseless tragedy and emotional ruin, and it makes for some deeply affecting meditations on the human condition.

The characters’ ability to shrug off even the most debilitating disaster dilutes the effect, but their situation speaks to primal fears of lives ill-spent and our own long-standing appointment with the man with the scythe. There are some truly touching moments in this film – Bridges’s slow fade from optimistic daydreams to deluded reverie, the juxtaposition of Frannie’s wistful assertion that “It’s important the first time” with the loveless coupling that becomes her stock-in-trade, and the wonderful final scene – supported by dialogue that hits the high notes with pleasing regularity (after a harrowing rape sequence, John asks his sister if there’s anything he can get her. “Yesterday”, she replies, “and most of today”.)

Unfortunately, at times it’s also a depressingly clinical exercise – the characters have a tight grip on their emotions, and stoicism isn’t a particularly endearing personality trait. A little more basic humanity would have enabled us to become invested in their lives, but as it is you’ll be watching a large portion of the proceedings with the same sense of detachment the protagonists call their own.

Irving has never been one to shy away from a controversial topic, and Richardson sticks to his guns by confronting the viewer with incest, suicide, bisexual liaisons and, for an encore, the sight of Matthew Modine being sodomized by Nastassja Kinski in a bear costume. Unfortunately, it’s here that things start to unravel, because the sheer improbability of the narrative makes it obvious that we’re not meant to be taking the film entirely seriously. There’s nothing wrong with mixing drama and comedy, but every attempt to build the dramatic tension is defused by another dose of general weirdness or the script’s fine line in puerile and over-the-top “humour”. Richardson amplifies the effect by pulling several hoary standards of lowbrow comedy out of his hat (paying homage to Benny Hill by speeding up the film; inserting jarring, gratuitous and generally silly shots into otherwise well-constructed scenes), leaving us with a fast-paced and uneven ride that doles out nausea and exhilaration in almost equal quantities.

The Hotel New Hampshire lacks the passion and cohesion that made The World According to Garp such a memorable experience, combining Irving’s episodic and probably unfilmable narrative with unsympathetic characterisation and a comic element that never quite gels. It’s worth seeing for Foster and the moments when it finds its groove, but for anyone planning another Irving adaptation it’s a two-hour incentive to hold out for the new Grisham.

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originally posted: 07/10/02 08:40:02
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User Comments

9/23/11 David W Survives its wealth of episodic dichotomies ... to glow with life worth living. 4 stars
7/16/07 sepo worth it, because it has the balls to cover taboo subjects, a breath of fresh air! 3 stars
11/20/05 Jeff Anderson Too bizarre for words & unfunny. If seeing Kinski in a bear suit is your cup of tea, then.. 1 stars
2/28/05 John Daily Irvong Rocks, but the movie is DOA. 1 stars
8/28/03 Chris Thurgood sumthing about it makes you KEEP WATCHING! 4 stars
1/08/03 Hendog fucked up and weird, but pretty good. not enough emotion at times. 4 stars
7/11/02 Kilmore Trout Silly and enjoyable with some great moments. 4 stars
7/10/02 Charles Tatum Really unpleasant to watch, shower afterward 2 stars
6/08/02 Andi I think it's cool for a movie in this time period to touch on such taboo issues. 4 stars
7/16/01 Burmese Weird, very weird 3 stars
3/14/01 Jake Too weird. Slums of Beverly Hills is much better take on quirky family. 3 stars
2/19/01 A,L. Wasted actors and film...just awful 1 stars
12/20/00 John Karas Hard to make a John Irving book into a film 4 stars
10/11/99 Weird Andy Irving sucks and so does this movie. 2 stars
10/18/98 Kwyjibo The best work of all involved. Definitely ahead of it's time. Outstanding. 5 stars
9/15/98 tessSpork weird-but interesting, jodie foster rocks! 3 stars
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  09-Mar-1984 (R)



Directed by
  Tony Richardson

Written by
  John Irving
  Tony Richardson

  Rob Lowe
  Jodie Foster
  Paul McCrane
  Beau Bridges
  Lisa Banes
  Seth Green

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