Noir way out

Jonathan Lethem reviews 'Hit Me,' directed by Steve Shainberg and starring Elias Koteas, Laure Marsac and William H. Macy.

Published October 2, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

For filmgoers with a keen eye for writer's credits, Steve Shainberg's neo-noir "Hit Me" offers an intriguing two-for-one: noir legend Jim Thompson's novel "A Swell-Looking Babe" adapted for the screen by Denis Johnson, author of "Fiskadoro," "Jesus' Son" and many other haunting, enigmatic volumes of fiction and poetry. The lead actor, setting and premise of "Hit Me" are promising as well: Elias Koteas ("The Adjuster," "Exotica," "Crash") plays Sonny, a desperate, scuffling night bellhop in the ominous and claustrophobic Stillwell Hotel, where a sequence of seemingly random bad turns draws him into the sucker role in a violent robbery scheme.

"Hit Me" was evidently a labor of love for the writer and director, who attracted a number of cult character actors as well as Johnson to the project. What should have been a low-budget jewel, however, goes badly off the rails. Instead, "Hit Me" is an object lesson in how much first-class talent at every level of a film's production can be set adrift when director and screenwriter don't know what kind of film they want to make. Uncertain whether to aim for morbid satire or poignant character study, "Hit Me" hedges. Sometimes Sonny the Bellhop functions as the plot's dupe, and the camera and story hold him at arm's length for our amusement. Then, in lingering and lugubrious close-ups, we're asked to indentify with his yearning for escape and with his bid for romance with Monique (played by French actress Laure Marsac), an authentic film noir hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold.

The movie dabbles for a while with David Lynch-ian absurdist logic before giving way to grittier, Tarantino-esque heist-gone-wrong machinations, the sort Tarantino himself has proved (for better in "Reservoir Dogs," for worse in "True Romance") can only end in torture and a Mexican standoff. Sure enough, those are the stops poor Sonny must visit before being deposited at the movie's despairing, circular conclusion. This sort of story makes diminishing possibilities its subject, but in the case of "Hit Me" our hopes for Sonny's redemption are snuffed out well before Sonny's are.

Bravura camera work and strikingly original color design provide some diversion from the suffocating familiarity of the story. Designer Amy Danger and director of photography Mark Gordon avoid the easy camp allure of the hotel setting by finding a subtle menace in a palette of cool pastels, against which Sonny's salmon bellhop jacket looks like a ludicrous howl of despair. Denis Johnson's gnomic, shrouded dialogue provides the film's other main source of redeeming pleasure. "When I first saw you I said to myself, that's a five-star lady in a three-, uh, a two-star hotel," Sonny tells Monique. We remember that subtle self-correction later, when Sonny is called on the carpet by the hotel's owners. Forced to plead for his job, Sonny climaxes a groveling speech by muttering, almost to himself: "It's very important that we get that star back." A pair of superb cameos also let in some air: William H. Macy ("Fargo") in a marvellous scene as a cop whose interrogation technique consists solely of a bland recitation of the last meals eaten by famous death row convicts, and the extraordinary Philip Baker Hall ("Midnight Run," "Hard Eight") who, as the aging card sharp who sits like a spider at the center of the plot, is given many of the film's best lines.

Koteas, an actor of sly intelligence elsewhere, doesn't fare as well. His performance grows mannered and hyperventilating through the course of the film, as he visibly struggles to excavate some meaning from an incoherent part. It can't be done. The grinding story and the mercilessly witty camera work conspire to hang this fine actor out to dry.

Finally, though, even an excellent performance from Koteas would have just been more ornamentation on a hollow core. In wondering what went wrong with "Hit Me" it's worth a glance back at the source. Jim Thompson's fiction, however absurdist and paranoiac, is grounded in Depression-era social texture and by a kind of native critique of capitalism. Thompson's lonely drifters are also fleshed out with hysterical Freudian motivations -- the feverishly Oedipal bellhop character in "A Swell-Looking Babe," there named Dusty, is a prime example. The creative team behind "Hit Me" seems to have abandoned these contexts as unfashionable, and as a result the Stillwell Hotel and its ill-fated bellhop are unmoored from any meaning except as noir archetypes. By that standard, "Hit Me" neither pushes the envelope of absurdist doom -- after "Lost Highway" and "Barton Fink" a thing quite difficult to do -- nor does it reach the nearer goal of making us care about Sonny's thwarted schemes and dreams.

By Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem, the Roy E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College, is the author of, most recently, and the story collection "Lucky Alan" and the novel "Dissident Gardens."

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