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Jan. 20 2010 - 9:03 pm | 359 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

There’s more to ‘Across the Hall’ than Brittany Murphy

It’s sad that much of the attention Across the Hall is likely to garner will be ghoulish curiosity about the late Brittany Murphy’s role in it, because the project really should be noted as promising early fare from a number of young talents, not gloomy late fare from one such talent.

Murphy, an actor and singer whose breakthrough role was in 1995’s Clueless, died in December at age 32 — of natural causes, authorities said, though friends told reporters they’d worried about her prescription drug use, perhaps initially for pain following plastic surgery. Such untimely deaths and the rumors that inevitably swirl around them make audiences anticipate somehow a performance at the top or the bottom of an actor’s game. But usually the performances are somewhere in the middle, because pacing careers, much less lives, is a lot harder than pacing a film — and that’s hard enough. Murphy’s part here, as a woman cheating on her fiancé — is neither high nor low point, but a solid, smoldering, smart turn in a lean, involving feature debut by director Alex Merkin. (The movie evolved from his 2005 short and is out on DVD this week.)

With exterior shots filmed at Universal’s New York City lot — which, furthering the extranarrative gloom, burned down soon after — Across the Hall makes much of its ingenious bare-bones noir workings. Merkin (who has story credits) and scripters Jesse Mittelstadt and Julien Schwab, have concocted a clever love triangle between June (Murphy), amused, afraid, vulnerable, and intriguingly searching in the realms of sex and commitment; the handsome, confidant Julian (Mike Vogel); and the tortured, brooding Terry (Danny Pino). Brad Greenquist, as a spooky, scrupulous hotel porter, and Natalie Smyka as Anna, a beautiful, angry past romantic liaison of Julian’s, nicely fill out the principal roles.

Time shifts, cell phones, a gun, iffy elevators, peepholes, scotch, stairways, cigarettes, the requisite illuminated outdoor hotel sign, and, of course, rain, are the major ingredients of plot and ambience. The art deco hotel set contrasts interestingly with the present-day digital gizmos, as if to remind us that information age or no, traditional iniquities still reign. And Bobby Tahouri’s vigorously dark original music is smartly interspersed with bits of elevator ditties and big-band numbers.

The script has some cracks. One wonders about the management that would have a useless room-service staff shirking in a basement kitchen while the porter minds the front desk and everything else. Just as one wonders why Anna would stay at this particular, dowdy, buggy  establishment, however compellingly vintage it might be, for anything but a brief assignation, though apparently she’s there for work or something. Certain finger prints and stains seem to be very quickly removable and no one seems to think police CSI teams, or cops in general, will be at their very sharpest on this case.

But overall, though haunted by externalities beyond the production’s control, Across the Hall is good, sinister fun. It makes us pine for the trembling, sexy Murphy roles that will not be. But it also makes us look forward to whatever’s next for Mr. Merkin. And it entertainingly suggests that hanging the Do Not Disturb sign is little help when a room’s occupant is already disturbed.


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    About Me

    I'm deputy editor of The Chronicle Review magazine of The Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/review). I've written freelance arts, books, and other pieces for The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The American Prospect, The Weekly Standard, and many other publications. When I was young, my parents hauled me to countless art-house movies, forever skewing my sense of reality. For that I am very grateful. I've also written several screenplays (http://rokovoko.blogspot.com/search/label/SCREENPLAY) that were lavishly produced and critically acclaimed -- in my head. I compose music (http://stardustmusic.blogspot.com) too.

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