** (out of four)
As riveting as it sounds, “The Motel Life” fits snugly into the moody nook that film festivals save for forgettable downers with recognizable faces.
In this bleak drama set around Reno, Nev., Frank (Emile Hirsch) long has looked after his older brother, Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff). They live the kind of down-and-out existances hidden behind brown curtains, too many bottles and songs that could use a drink of their own. When Jerry Lee gets Frank out of bed in the middle of the night, panicking after accidentally killing a child in a hit-and-run, Frank does what he can to help. His brother, who lost part of his leg years ago, soon takes off and shoots himself in his bad leg, landing in the hospital and fearing jail time for vehicular manslaughter.
Based on Willy Vlautin’s novel and directed by Chicago native brothers Gabe and Alan Polsky, the humorless “The Motel Life” wants to unfold with the profound anguish of the blues. Instead, it feels like someone who just picked up a guitar and hasn’t found a way to make his story crackle. The best parts of the film occur when Frank tells Jerry Lee exaggerated stories—about homicidal pirates and beautiful, available women—that appear on screen in lively, animated fashion. For these guys, the past and the imagination are far better than the present, and the film’s watchability follows suit.
Despite looking even younger than the actors’ nine-year age difference, Dakota Fanning turns up as Frank’s ex in an underwritten but similarly dismal subplot.
The Polskys strive to tap into a firm family bond that holds in hard times and people who struggle not to fold when dealt an unfortunate hand. What they deliver, though, feels like well-performed acting practice and a woeful tale that sometimes can’t distinguish human error from bad luck.
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