One day, someone will have to explain the virtues of the adultery movie.
Not because adultery is immoral; why would a filmmaker stack the deck from the beginning against the lead characters? Moviegoers can forgive the Joker for blowing up half of Gotham City. They've always seemed less likely to approve of people cheating on their spouses.
I don't care what happens on screen as long as it makes sense within the confines of the world the filmmakers have constructed. On that level, writer-director Matt Ross' 28 Hotel Rooms works. The world in which the two adulterers live is so tiny and suffocating they have no choice but to act the way they do, which is to complain about the confines of the world into which they've been dropped, and how it's suffocating.
On another level—namely, caring about its characters—28 Hotel Rooms fails because the characters can talk about nothing other than what happens inside those hotel rooms, even when they're talking about things that happen outside those hotel rooms.
But let's stop running in circles like the movie does and inject some context: Man (Chris Messina) and Woman (Marin Ireland)—the lack of names is supposed to have some sort of significance, but it doesn't—have passionate sex in Room 1704. Some time later, they meet unexpectedly at a hotel bar. Before long, they're having a quick bone in Room 3211, followed by some sobbing. See, Woman is married, and perhaps—though it isn't clear—she feels guilty about cheating on her husband.
Man has no such hang-ups. At a subsequent tryst, he tells Woman he broke up with his girlfriend (not because of Woman, of course). But eventually he meets someone else, becomes engaged and gets married.
He's a writer with a first-novel bestseller. She's a numbers cruncher of some kind, traveling across the country to hire, fire and redistribute people. That's how they can meet up as often as they do without arousing suspicion. To be fair, the movie seemingly takes place over many years, though neither Messina nor Ireland age.
Getting back to the context, though, we see precisely the movie's problem: There's purposely no context.
We have no idea what's going on in these characters' lives, other than the snippets we hear them dole out for perfunctory storytelling purposes. In fact, one wishes Man, when he was a character on the page, looked at his screenwriter, Ross, and said, "Dude. Give me some depth or something other than just rambling on, because I fill uncomfortable silences with chitchat. And also, maybe make me the icy one, because audiences are more likely to be hard on female characters who are icy than they are on guys. I'm just sayin'."
That conversation didn't happen, of course, and Ireland does as much as she can with the character. She's given the quiet role, and the character's standoffishness could be a result of many things, maybe guilt or boredom or maybe she just looks like she's standoffish but she's totally misunderstood. It's hard to know when the screenplay is so evasive with anything resembling character development.
Man's second novel tanks in the press and on the shelves, and he takes Woman's attempt to console him—a pot-infused rant that ends with "It's just a book"—as hostile. She calls him a commie and he says she doesn't create anything of value. It's a promising scene, but it ends suddenly, without resolution and no mention of their opposing worldviews pops up again. A 10-year affair would surely have more moments like this.
It's a missed opportunity because the scene is far more interesting than any of the sex scenes.
28 Hotel Rooms is not a total loss. Ireland and especially Messina are good, and director of photography Doug Emmett makes all 28 room looks different. If only there were that much care given to the story; the rooms have more personality than the people.
Written and directed by Matt Ross / With Chris Messina and Marin Ireland / CCA Cinematheque / NR / 82 min.