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You know those romantic comedies that take a fib or minor misunderstanding and build upon it an entire, exasperating feature full of zaniness? Swap zaniness for utter misery and you have The Motel Life, the debut of directors Alan and Gabe Polsky and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, whose inexperience creating a film is painfully obvious.
The story is adapted from Willy Vlautin’s novel by the same name, so the details couldn’t have been that tough to replicate. And although a filmmaker may not want to spell out every nuance in marquee lights, opting for subtlety will backfire if it leaves your viewers wanting to yell “Just explain what happened!”
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Here’s what happened, as the audience sees it. Brothers Jerry (Stephen Dorff) and Frank (Emile Hirsch) lost their mother when they were teens and have been hardscrabbling it on their own ever since. When the film opens, Jerry, who lost part of one leg while trying to hop a train, enters the Reno motel room he shares with Frank and deliriously tells his sleeping brother that they have to go. “I can’t drive,” Jerry says. He doesn’t elaborate on either statement.
Time to read between the lines. Jerry finally talks, saying that after he and his girlfriend got into an argument, he drove back to the motel in blizzard conditions. A kid on a bike suddenly appeared, and Jerry hit him. His first instinct was a decent one: Take the boy to the hospital. But then he sees that he’s dead, so instead he dumps the body near the hospital and takes off.
Jerry knows that it was wrong—so why did he do it? A good guess would be that he’s drunk, but that’s never clear. So the brothers take off, avoiding the cops and getting money however they can. An ex-girlfriend (Dakota Fanning) of Frank’s is lightly involved, but otherwise it’s just Jerry and Frank acting like fugitives, as if one of them had murdered somebody in a drug deal gone bad instead of accidentally running over a bicyclist on a snowy night.
Except for a few sequences of animation—Frank is supposed to be quite the storyteller, and Jerry an illustrator—it’s boring as hell. “We’re fuckups, Frank,” Jerry says. They are? News to us. The subplot with Frank’s ex goes nowhere, as does the implication that he’s sick (lots of scenes of him coughing, as well as vomiting blood). Dorff, leaving the biggest impression, infuses Jerry with weepiness and self-pity, but the performance would be more commendable if we knew how the character got to this point. Hirsch ably handles not being given much to do, and Fanning barely registers. You wait for a game-changing development that never comes. After Frank tells one of his off-the-cuff tales to soothe his brother, Jerry says, “That’s a helluva story, Frank! I’m going to sleep to that story.” Coincidentally, you’ll sleep to this one, too.