The adage “the book is better than the movie” is an easy and highly flawed attitude to adopt when criticizing film. While it is unfortunately true that too many high profile adaptations are more interested in cashing in on the brand than making a cinematic version equivalent to the source material, there are plenty of wonderful adaptations out there, some even more lauded than the books on which they are based. The indie scene in particular tends to attract more passion projects, and this debut effort from directors Gabe and Alan Polsky is clearly that kind of film, born from a personal connection to the original book. Sometimes, though, passion for the book does not guarantee a successful adaptation, as Peter Jackson’s struggles with The Hobbit sadly demonstrate.
The Motel Life follows the Flannigan brothers as they struggle to avoid a vagrant life after having lost their mother to cancer when they were young. Frank (Emile Hirsch) works odd jobs while trying to keep his brother Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) out of trouble. Jerry Lee, traumatized by orphanhood and by the loss of his leg in a train-hopping accident, surrounds himself with fantastical sketches and seeks comfort in Frank’s endless tall tales. After Jerry-Lee accidentally kills a child in a hit and run accident, Frank has to resort to desperate measures to protect his brother from prison while struggling to reconnect with his old flame Annie (Dakota Fanning).
There is a lot going on in this story, and the strangest thing is that the film opts to breeze over all the plot points to focus on dead time that the two brothers share. For instance, Annie was raised by her prostitute mother, a circumstance that is hugely significant in her relationship with Frank. But we’re only treated to three scenes that flashback to this period, all of them so short that they just barely get the plot points across, but not long enough to establish any sort of sense as to why these two characters care about each other – or even who Annie might be as a person. What does she see in him? What does he see in her? It’s impossible even to guess. Even more uncertain is how the brothers’ early family life affected them; again we’re given a scene just long enough to tell us that their mother died of cancer and that she made them promise to take care of each other, but that doesn’t tell us what life with her was like and how it might have made them who they are today.
Instead of giving us that much needed context, the film resorts to lengthy mumbling conversation scenes where characters talk about all sorts of things that happened off camera. This is problematic because the filmmakers, having decided that the important thing is the relationship between the brothers, nonetheless left so many moments where they bond out of the film in the hopes that simply having characters talk about “That one time we…” would be sufficient to establish a relationship the audience can relate to. But when a film revolves around two people with poor decision-making skills, it’s difficult to root for them when there isn’t much to sympathize or empathize with except hearsay.
The film has its strengths. There are moments where the image becomes exceedingly beautiful, and the music is delicate and lovely. The animated sequences that bring Frank’s stories to life are rendered in an interesting style, and they are the moments when the film most feels like it takes flight. Kris Kristopherson turns in a solid performance for what amounts to a bit role, and Emile Hirsch is absolutely believable as the moody, taciturn Frank. Unfortunately, Dakota Fanning really has nothing to do, and the only scene she has where she can flex her acting muscle is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flashback. The film also avoids sentimentality, which is a huge plus in its favor. Too many films rely on physical disability to get a cheap emotional response from the viewer.
But ultimately, there’s too much we’re told that we don’t see for ourselves, and instead of truly believing in their fraternal bond, their relationship seems as insubstantial as Frank’s stories – perhaps because Frank’s stories comprise the majority of their intimate moments. It’s more dreary than compelling. It feels incomplete and unsatisfying, like a burger that only has a patty between two buns. In the film’s final moment, Frank appears to make a commitment not due to a revelation that this is what he needs to do, but because he really doesn’t have anything better to do – which, honestly, is probably the only reason you’ll end up watching this film.