One of the many ways hubris exists in filmmaking is when filmmakers use “cleverness” as an end rather than as a means. The film suddenly hinges on the twist and, no matter how satisfying it might turn out, a twist is never enough to carry a movie if the rest of the story is mediocre. Such is the way with Hotel California. This good looking film aims for the stars with inspired scenes, creative direction and standout performances, but doesn’t get much mileage out of its storytelling.
Troy Walkens (Erik Palladino) and his partners, Al (Tyson Beckford) and Pete (Simon Rex), are lieutenants working under crime boss Dmitri Debartolla (Raymond J. Barry), doing all the legwork that keeps crime running. On a routine drug buy, Pete is mugged by the brother of a rival crime boss and Dmitri’s merchandise is stolen. Against Dmitri’s wishes, Troy takes matters into his own hands and gets the drugs back, angering the rival family, ruining relations with Dmitri and creating a rift between his partners and him. As events spiral out of control, Troy has no choice but to leave Los Angeles. Now, 18 months later, he returns to reclaim his old life and tie up loose ends in a dingy room of a no-name hotel in California.
There’s a lot to like about Hotel California. First and foremost, it has a beautiful look to it. The color palette consists of vibrant desert hues that almost look pastel. One gorgeous scene in particular takes place against a striking background with magic hour highlighting the sky. The film also has a graphic novel feel at times, presenting shots from unique vantage points, like from the inside of a drawer as it’s opened or from under a cigar as ash falls on the camera. It’s very stylish, but unfortunately it isn’t consistent throughout the film and doesn’t seem to have much function.
The performances are strong overall, with Erik Palladino offering solid acting with enough charisma to lead the film. He’s cool under fire and viciously ruthless when he needs to be. At times he might be a little too controlled – he rarely looks worried even when his life is falling apart and men are pointing guns at his face – but it plays well with his fatalistic attitude. Simon Rex also strikes the right tone as a sidekick that gets pushed around. He doesn’t overplay it or let his personal ego diminish the character. Raymond J. Barry is amazing to watch as he effortlessly shows off the many levels of Dmitri. The subtle choices he makes, like repeatedly clenching his fist during an interrogation, reveal so much about his character and remind audiences that there are more ways to act than with just dialog and facial expressions.
Where Hotel California disappoints is with the storytelling. It tries to be a movie that makes audiences think they’re watching one thing, but in reality they’re watching something else entirely. In those films everything ties up neatly in the end. There’s nothing wrong with that convention, except Hotel California doesn’t deal with audiences fairly. The story is told through several flashbacks and, to help viewers keep track of the timeline, those scenes are displayed in black and white – most of the time. Regrettably, the black and white spills into present day scenes, which is confusing since it becomes difficult to tell when things are happening. There’s also an important continuity error where a character calls a phone number and gets a “no longer in service” recording in one flashback only to have the same call go through in a repeat flashback of the same scene.
The story itself and its respective elements also raise a few concerns. Troy’s motivations aren’t very clear and there’s just a few too many double-crosses going on to easily keep track of them all. Furthermore, Troy’s relationship with Jessie (Tatyana Ali) feels tacked on. Her role as the disapproving girlfriend should have been fleshed out to give Troy a very strong reason to come back and sort out affairs in LA.
On the other hand, a few scenes are truly inspired and manage to present something new and unique. One poor fellow is tortured for information by having a prostitute bite on his manhood. In another scene, two characters swap racist jokes and the dialog and delivery will remind of Tarantino. In these moments and more Hotel California shines and offers quality entertainment – for as long as they last.