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Memorable screen acting has more to do with behavior than technique. Actors whose performances survive the passage of time—Buster Keaton, James Stewart, Carole Lombard, Spencer Tracy, Gloria Grahame, Audrey Hepburn, Marcello Mastroianni, Julie Christie, Clint Eastwood, and Tuesday Weld, to name a few personal favorites—merge their off-camera personas with the roles they choose, parceling out bits of themselves to the characters they play. Actors rooted in traditional stage technique, who work from the outside inward, often impress critics and viewers with their studied histrionics, but their work tends to lack staying power. Consider Paul Muni, Luise Rainer, Irene Dunne, Greer Garson, Fredric March, Jose Ferrer, Joanne Woodward, and Rod Steiger—all Oscar-winners and all nearly forgotten except by the most avid film buffs.

Very rarely, an actor manages the feat of blending naturalistic behavior and virtuoso technique—James Mason in Lolita, Patricia Neal in Hud, Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater, John Gielgud in Providence, Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers—resulting in performances that grow in stature each time we return to them. Gena Rowlands achieves something comparable in Unhook the Stars, a domestic drama directed by her son, Nick Cassavetes. The movie contains a number of sentimental and comedic contrivances, but Rowlands soars above them in what is arguably the performance of her career.

Although she has worked with filmmakers as diverse as William Friedkin, Woody Allen, Paul Schrader, Jim Jarmusch, and Terence Davies, Rowlands is best known for her collaborations with her late husband, actor-director John Cassavetes. These intense, partially improvised performances demonstrated Rowlands’ gifts, but too often she was implausibly cast in roles—a mentally disturbed lower-middle-class housewife (A Woman Under the Influence), an on-the-lam mob moll (Gloria)—that ill suited her patrician beauty and lively intelligence. (Allen used her more convincingly as a college professor experiencing a midlife crisis in Another Woman.) Unhook the Stars, which Cassavetes fils (with co-screenwriter Helen Caldwell) has designed as a showcase for his mother, makes a strong case for the filmmaker’s admittedly biased assertion that she is “the greatest actress in the world.”

Rowlands plays Mildred, a middle-aged suburban widow whose family responsibilities are ending. Her married yuppie son, Ethan (David Sherrill), has a lucrative job; her rebellious teenage daughter, Ann Mary Margaret (Moira Kelly), fed up with her mother’s supervision, has angrily severed family ties and moved in with her boyfriend. Alone in a comfortable old home with a paid-off mortgage, Mildred has no outlet for her considerable energies, until one morning, when Monica (Marisa Tomei), a rowdy, sluttish neighbor, and her 6-year-old son J.J. (Jake Lloyd) appear at her doorstep.

Monica’s marriage is in trouble—she has an abusive husband—and she needs someone to baby-sit J.J. while she works. The timid boy and the lonely widow bond, giving purpose and substance to each other’s lives. Gradually, despite generational and cultural differences, Mildred warms to Monica, too. On a girl’s night out at a roadhouse, Monica introduces her neighbor to Big Tommy (Gerard Depardieu), a Quebecois truck driver with a poetic soul who is drawn to the older woman.

Sustained by her newfound independence and the extended family she’s formed, Mildred refuses Ethan’s invitation to come live with him in San Francisco. But when Monica’s husband returns, contrite and ready to accept his paternal responsibilities, Mildred loses her “best friend and main man” J.J. and is forced to make some crucial decisions about her future. The fadeout finds her boarding a jet for an unrevealed destination, though we’re given enough clues to make an educated guess where she’s headed.

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Like most star turns, Mildred is a larger-than-life role, but Rowlands’ tact and resourcefulness hold her in check. She has prepared a battery of physical details for the character—a plucky, determined walk for neighborhood strolls, wavery movements for several tipsy scenes—but her body language feels spontaneous, unlike worked-up acting-lab exercises. It’s a full-blooded, extravagant performance that mirrors Mildred’s generous, sometimes smothering spirit. Her scenes with Lloyd, a somber, unmoppety child, are affecting without ever descending into bathos. And though I risk charges of sexism in pointing this out, Rowlands, now in her mid-60s, remains blindingly beautiful, from her exquisite profile to her trim ankles.

Within the limitations imposed on them by the screenplay—the secondary characters are too broadly drawn—the supporting cast is remarkable, too. With her cheap dye-job, pierced navel, and hump-me wardrobe, Tomei is appropriately disheveled and abrasive as a woman who uses crassness to shield her vulnerability. (“Miss Obnoxious, that’s me!”) I doubt that any actress could carry off the improbable scene at Mildred’s Thanksgiving dinner where Monica throws herself at Ethan in front of his wife and embarrasses everyone with her foul tongue, but Tomei gives it her best shot. Depardieu, hitherto nerdish in his English-language screen appearances, is gruffly tender, though with his long hair and bulbous nose, he’s disconcertingly aging to resemble Kukla.

As an actor, Nick Cassavetes has been working steadily for more than a decade, playing small roles in Alan Rudolph, Oliver Stone, and Peter Bogdanovich movies, and starring in sleazy, direct-to-cable soft-core porno thrillers in which his face and butt are equally displayed. Unhook the Stars is his directorial debut, and like his father’s films is performance-driven, if formally less daring. The elder Cassavetes, a godfather of the independent American feature, favored long takes that drove actors (and sometimes viewers) to the breaking point. Young Cassavetes’ style is more conventional, alternating master shots with cross-cut close-ups. He takes fewer risks than his father, but his work is more efficiently paced and, I suspect, more accessible to audiences.

I arrived at Unhook the Stars prepared to resist what threatened to be an emetically heartwarming tale about the nurturing relationship between a widow and a child; the potential for cloying uplift seemed ineluctable. But I left the theater invigorated by Rowlands’ talent, spirit, and beauty, and the screenplay’s faith in the possibility, however belated, of self-discovery and self-renewal. Like Aunt Rose, the character in a Grace Paley story who teaches her niece that “change is a fact of God. From this no one is excused,” Unhook the Stars reaffirms that, until our final breaths, we possess the capacity to reinvent ourselves.

My own dire stage debut (and swan song) as an out-of-work wrestler in a high-school play called The Boarding House Reach wasn’t vastly inferior to the ensemble performances in Hotel de Love, 96 minutes of cinéma de merde. The only point of reviewing this dead-on-arrival Australian comedy is to warn video-store patrons against renting it after its certain theatrical belly-up.

Writer-director Craig Rosenberg gathers a gaggle of star-crossed lovers in a tacky honeymoon hotel for an inane roundelay of frustrated romantic complications. In a preface set a decade before the main action begins, teenage fraternal twins Rick (Aden Young) and Stephen (Simon Bossell) both fall for Melissa Morrison (Saffron Burrows) at a summer party. Cocky Rick hits on her before his shy, insecure brother. He and Melissa make love on her last night before departing for college in England. Despite vows to keep in touch, they lose track of each other.

Ten years later, Stephen has become a successful, lovelorn stockbroker haunted by memories of Melissa. Rick, the jaded survivor of numerous affairs, manages the titular inn. On the same weekend that their squabbling parents (Ray Barrett and Julia Blake) visit the hotel hoping to resurrect their wretched marriage, Melissa unexpectedly shows up with her fiancée. Misunderstandings abound before everyone ends up happily coupled.

Rosenberg’s scenario might be marginally diverting if it were written and directed with the speed of a door-slamming Feydeau farce like Hotel Paradiso. But as the filmmaker asserts in the movie’s press material, “It’s about real people in a somewhat absurd and crazy environment.” In attempting to conflate two incompatible genres, Hotel de Love is a double flop—too sluggish to work as farce, and populated by stereotypical characters about as “real” as sitcom inhabitants.

Working with only a rudimentary command of cinematic technique, Rosenberg can’t even summon up chuckles by exploiting the kitschiness of his setting. (Julien Temple struck a gusher of gaudy gags in his segment of Aria, shot at the flamboyant Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, Calif.) Production designer Simon Dobbin’s “theme suites” (“The Garden of Eden,” “The Grand Finale Passion Suite”) are hideous but unamusing, and the hotel’s Niagara Smalls, a 3-foot waterfall, is milked far beyond its sparse comic potential. Alan Hapgood, as the hotel’s ferret-faced owner and lobby singer-pianist, punctuates the film with wheezy renditions of hokey lounge tunes (“I Honestly Love You,” “Love Will Keep Us Together”) which grow increasingly tiresome as the action creeps along to its inevitable denouement.

If dialogue like “Love is a piece of poo” and “Don’t analyze me—I’m too shallow,” or the umpteenth recycling of the interrupted nuptials climax of The Graduate sound tempting, by all means book a reservation at Hotel de Love. Otherwise, you’ll be better off watching HBO at Motel 6.CP