Combustible Celluloid
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With: Rosario Dawson, Vincent D'Onofrio, Kris Kristofferson, Robert Sean Leonard, Natasha Richardon, Jimmy Scott, Uma Thurman, Mark Webber, Tuesday Weld, Kevin Corrigan, Frank Whaley, Paz de la Huerta, Steven Zahn
Written by: Nicole Burdette, based on her play, and upon poems by Arthur Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas
Directed by: Ethan Hawke
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 109
Date: 09/21/2001

Chelsea Walls (2002)

2 Stars (out of 4)

'Walls' Comes Tumbling Down

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sometimes it's difficult to distinguish between intelligence and pretentiousness in films. Is the filmmaker saying something brilliant, or is he talking just to hear himself talk? In the case of Ethan Hawke, who makes his directorial debut this week with Chelsea Walls, I suspect he's actually a very intelligent fellow. He's proven honest and open as an actor in films like Before Sunrise and Training Day, as well as cunning and sophisticated in Gattaca, Hamlet, Waking Life and Tape. (I interviewed him a few years ago and found him thoughtful and grounded.) But Chelsea Walls reeks with phony posturing and lot of talking without really saying anything. It's possible that the film's source material, a play by Nicole Burdette, is the cause. But the director is the one who fleshes it out. Was Hawke unable to sift through the material and find the real thing?

Chelsea Walls takes place in New York City's infamous Chelsea Hotel, and jumps around from room to room, spying on many of its inhabitants -- some interesting, and some direct from Stock Characters 101. Grace (Hawke's real-life wife Uma Thurman) occupies one of the hotel's larger rooms. She works as a waitress in nearby jazz club and acts nervous all the time, dropping and breaking glasses in the club and jumping when the phone rings at home. Kris Kristofferson plays a burly, drunken Hemingway-type writer who keeps the shades drawn most of the time to protect his poor, hung-over eyes from the light. He works on a manual typewriter and his narrated readings of his own work overlap into a sonic mishmash.

Vincent D'Onofrio plays an artist who trades paintings for rent. He helps Grace out from time to time and clearly has a crush on her, but seems reluctant to act on it. Then there's Rosario Dawson, who may or may not be a runaway from a well-to-do family. She's shacking up with a weary-eyed slacker (Mark Webber) who could leave her at any moment -- and trying to live a "real" life. Finally, we have a pop musician, Terry (Robert Sean Leonard) who arrives with his sidekick Ross (Steve Zahn) ready to change the world with his music. He serves as the movie's central character and its biggest tragedy.

Zahn can't help playing his usual silly stoned monkey, providing the movie's only real laughs. He gets stuck in an elevator with the movie's most pretentious character, a mad poet (John Seitz) who roams the Chelsea halls and spouts weirdo poetry. Zahn stares bug-eyed, waiting endlessly for the elevator to arrive at its destination while sucking on the drawstring of his sweater. The movie works best when concentrating on music, provided mostly by Jeff Tweedy of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco fame, as well as the jazz singer Little Jimmy Scott, who plays one of the hotel's denizens. The songs provide a respite from the movie's dialogue, and their druggy accompanying images (shot on digital video) have a real sadness. Those songs provided me with the answer I was looking for, throwing light on the rest of the movie. I realized that this was a pretentious, not particularly intellighent movie. Yet its longing for a Bohemian era where poets could change the world is real -- and the melancholy that comes through when the world today proves resistant -- is real, too.

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