Expensive mistake

Film - Jonathan Romney finds that Wim Wenders's latest film belongs nowhere

It's been a long time since Wim Wenders was a German film-maker, properly speaking. His last substantial engagement with the German scene was Faraway, So Close! - his 1993 sequel to Wings of Desire. Even that felt very much an outsider's view, a wanderer's nostalgic return. As much as Werner Herzog, a fellow veteran of the New German Cinema of the 1970s, Wenders has long been addicted to travel, filming in America, Japan, Portugal, Cuba and, in his monstrous, rambling Until the End of the World, everywhere he possibly could. But it's only with his latest film set in the US, The Million Dollar Hotel, that his wanderlust has finally got the better of him, and he has become yet another European auteur lost in America.

Wenders's past decade was patchy in the extreme. He made some shockingly bad films in the 1990s, and it is a shame that his biggest success in years, the very enjoyable Buena Vista Social Club, was ultimately an impersonal extended music promo. But there's a lot to be said for Faraway, So Close! and even the maligned The End of Violence, a film that may have come across as a naive plea for a gentler, kinder cinema, but one that still engaged critically with mainstream Hollywood (besides, there was a certain shade of blue in the photography that you don't easily forget).

But The Million Dollar Hotel is a catastrophe. It begins with a suicide leap, and you can't help feeling that the film is, in a way, Wenders's own artistic suicide - an abnegation of responsibility as a thinking film-maker. The original story was co-written (with screenwriter Nicholas Klein) by the lead singer of U2, Bono, a long-time sidekick of Wenders. As a rule, rock stars shouldn't be trusted to act, let alone contribute to screenplays, and the only good thing that can be said about this collaboration is that Bono restricts his appearance to a split-second cameo.

Although set in 2001, The Million Dollar Hotel is a deeply old-fashioned film, devoted to the proposition that it is a crazy world and only the crazy really know what's what. The crumbling hotel, in downtown Los Angeles, is populated entirely by charming dysfunctionals and gentle mooncalves such as neo-punk waif Tom Tom, played by Jeremy Davies with an unforgivably self-indulgent display of twitching and gurning. He loves enigmatic Eloise, though she warns him: "I'm fictional." Eloise is played as an other-worldly superwaif by Milla Jovovich, the most dislikably narcissistic of new screen stars (she was a vacuous Maid of Orleans in Luc Besson's recent film, Joan of Arc). The death of Tom Tom's friend Izzy ("Izzy?" - "Is he?" - "Is he, was he, whatever": this gives you an idea of the script's tenor) is being investigated by Skinner (Mel Gibson), an FBI heavy who once had a third arm growing out of his back. Skinner puts on the pressure, planting bugs, flooding the place, twitching weirdly when his detective antennae pick up the vibrations. In brief, the Freaks versus the Man.

Gibson sticks out like a sore thumb as a walking embodiment of the System, at once the authoritarian lawman and the Hollywood star slumming in art cinema. His playing, nervy and stilted, is anything but naturalistic; it plays on the pulp-paperback toughness we're used to from him. All credit to him for trying a new spin, but the note is never right; the character, like every one here, comes across as a borrowed comic-strip grotesque.

It's an ugly, claustrophobic film; but worst of all, it's embarrassing. Peter Stormare plays an apocryphal Beatle, the one who really wrote the songs. His barely intelligible Lennon impersonation - it is meant to be a bad impersonation, which somehow makes it worse - culminates in a lachrymose "I am the Walrus", perhaps the most mawkish thing I've ever experienced in the cinema. Wenders has no idea when he is coasting too close to farce. One storyline involves paintings covered in tar: Julian Sands's slimy art dealer declares: "The line between art and garbage may be thin." I accept that it's a self-reflexive nudge, but surely Wenders realises this is just the sort of line that critics will eagerly scribble down to use against him?

The visual tricks are none too felicitous either. There are two memorable images: a slow-motion fall from the roof, with echoes of both Rear Window and Wings of Desire; and a shot of the trumpeter Jon Hassell playing in a candlelit room. And the last five minutes achieve some sort of grace. But there's also ugly, so-what trickery: sudden, disorienting slow drags of vision, and a speeded-up comedy scene (al-ways a mark of desperation). Top marks, however, for an original soundtrack mixing Bono with such left-field players as Bill Frisell, Brian Eno and the piano prodigy Brad Mehldau. (The best music fades in and out too nebulously to get a handle on: buy the CD instead.)

The baffling thing about this film is that you really have no idea what sort of director has made it. It is clearly not a director with a special insight into American culture or landscape. But neither is it one with any strong European aesthetic. The Million Dollar Hotel belongs nowhere, except in an expensive no-man's land between the mainstream and the art house, an infertile ground that only has meaning in terms of "event" movies to be unveiled at festivals. Wenders, who has somehow managed to make a difference, however marginally, for so long, seems at last to have become pointless as well as stateless - as his phoney Lennon character would say, a real nowhere man.

The Million Dollar Hotel (15) is showing at the Curzon Soho and the Virgin Haymarket, London

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why I am voting for Ken Livingstone