On plausible and implausible crooks, relics of the past inside a chaotic future, and the shortchanging of Hotel Artemis' novelistic scale
Hotel Artemis Global Road Entertainment
Director: Drew Pearce
Screenplay: Drew Pearce
Starring: Jodie Foster, Sofia Boutella, Sterling K. Brown, Dave Bautista, Charlie Day, Brian Tyree Henry, Jenny Slate, Zachary Quinto and Jeff Goldblum
Rated R / 1 hour, 34 minutes / 2.35:1
June 8, 2018
(out of four)
Hotel Artemis might've made for a hell of a graphic novel. And then, maybe, a prestige limited series based on that graphic novel. But in 90-minute form it does itself a disservice.
There is a novelistic scope to the world Drew Pearce created and the cast of characters he wrote to inhabit it. Which makes the scope of the narrative itself - a handful of killers waiting out a single night at the eponymous members-only hotel as riots rage on the streets outside - a rather inadequate container for it all.
You always hear actors talk about the unspoken backstories created for their characters, invented by the filmmakers and/or the actors themselves. We trust that these personal histories helped inform the actors' interpretation of the characters, and maybe as a result we sense certain things that otherwise go unarticulated. This kind of stuff is usually invisible. Say what you will about Hotel Artemis but it's nothing if not fully thought-through. These characters all have pasts; it feels like we're catching up with most of them instead of just meeting. To the extent that it always feels like Pearce wants to say more but just doesn't have the time or opportunity. At times, background details implied or outright referenced work marvelously - mostly when they're being used to flesh out a scene or moment on an almost subconscious level. Sterling K. Brown and Sofia Boutella have a few moments like that together, when we know the kind of past they have but the film doesn't feel the need to overplay it, or resort to a more clear-cut flashback that couldn't possibly have the same effect as just watching the physical and lingual shorthand between the two.
But when the movie tries to really make something of the past, or expound too much on one subplot or another, that sense of scope becomes a handicap. The presumptive depth of character and breadth of milieu starts to seem superficial - even tedious. Consider that three career criminals running three separate jobs all intersecting in the same place on the same night is already movie enough. Did I mention one of those criminals has a brother who's on life support with a gunshot wound (and a lingering narcotic addiction) in the infirmary? Well, that too. On top of that we're going to throw in the town kingpin, accompanied by a whole troupe of his loyal soldiers, including his hot-tempered wild-card of a son. And then of course we have the head of this fine establishment, The Nurse (Jodie Foster) - tough-as-nails, sardonic, matronly, agoraphobic* - who has to coordinate the comings and goings of every crook who wants in and provide constant medical care and room service. Complicating matters is the sudden appearance of a cop (Jenny Slate), who's not supposed to be allowed inside (it's strictly against Artemis rules) but is snuck in because she was a neighbor and childhood friend of the Nurse's son ... which in turn introduces a new, important backstory about the son, an addict who died many years earlier and whose death has turned the Nurse into something of a recluse. And beyond that there's the matter of the world itself, as Pearce has to find ways to explain and make use of this chaotic future (Los Angeles circa 2028) in which society is on the brink of collapse owing to a conflict over the availability of water. Oh, the Nurse and the kingpin - the so-called Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum) - have a history that comes into play, too. They're the long-time veterans of this game; they go way back.
* The agoraphobia is a clear giveaway that the Nurse is, in fact, the future alias of Foster's character from Nim's Island, and thus Hotel Artemis takes place inside the Nim's Island Extended Cinematic Universe.
All I'm saying is, maybe a leaner ensemble narrative may have been in order for a film with such a narrow time frame. That, or something with a lot more sprawl. Instead Pearce splits the difference and gives us a little bit about a lot. It should have been more or it should have been less.
Still, Artemis has its share of charms. Among the handful of strong performances, Brown and Boutella stand out - he as a disciplined, strictly-business type and she as an unassuming but ruthless assassin. Dave Bautista shines in yet another role, this time as the Nurse's long-time assistant, equal parts enforcer and confidante. This hotel wouldn't be the same without him. The film wastes Goldblum in the crime-boss part - mostly because it's not much of a role at all. More than a cameo but less relevant than the rest of the name cast, it seems like a missed opportunity to see him really tear into a nasty villainous role.
More unfortunate is the casting of Charlie Day, punching far above his weight as a boorish hotshot arms dealer. I like Day, and he brings his customary energy to the role - along with a ham-fisted attempt at a tough-guy accent - but the performance doesn't work on either level it theoretically might. His cold, tacitly violent arrogance is unconvincing, but neither does he get much comic mileage out of it. He's supposed to be obnoxious, the pest that everyone tolerates simply because he's paid up and hasn't broken any hotel rules, but even on those terms he never seems like he belongs.
His surroundings, however, have no such issue. The hotel itself is a terrific assemblage of contradictions - the tacky themed rooms and peeling wallpaper of a seedy dive motel mixed with the most advanced security and medical technology. The interiors of an ancient art-deco past playing host to a revolving door of future criminals. Top dollar for flickering lights and broken TVs - that and all the discretion and protection a criminal could ask for. Ramsey Avery's production design gives the film a constant sense of the old-fashioned.
Incidentally, those endearing and deliberate contradictions - locations and time periods mixing and matching - are met by strange discrepancies in the script and the casting. There are multiple references to Foster's character being a flower child of the late 1960s, and at one point she dismisses a compliment with the line, "No one's flirted with me since 1976." That would be 52 years before the movie's 2028 setting; Foster is 55 years old. Even if her grey hair and ragged knit sweater are meant to make her look older, the filmmakers are fooling themselves if they think she's plausibly in her 70s or 80s. It's a nitpick, I admit - it just made me wonder if this was an older screenplay that just took a while to get produced, at which point the setting had to be pushed a decade just to retain the sci-fi conceit. Probably not important. It just runs contrary to all the meticulous care put into the character details throughout. Either way, movie or no movie, I'd still give Hotel Artemis a second look in another form, or another time.