So I saw Serie Noire at a special showing at Lincoln Center and that put a fire under me to see the Jim Thompson adaptations I hadn’t seen and written about yet, which led me to a quick re-watch of the Grifters and finally, this, which I think should be pretty much it [aside from an adaptation of The Kill-Off that’s not Netflixable]. This is directed by Steven Shainberg, whose next film was the acclaimed Secretary, but who shot himself in the foot with his film after that, Fur, which was an imaginary biography of Diane Arbus and was not well received. This is an adaptation of A Swell-Looking Babe, one of the few Thompson novels I haven’t read, and from what I can tell, it shares several similarities with A Hell of a Woman [which became Serie Noire] and seems to draw on Thompson’s own experience as a hotel bellhop [which is where he learned much of his material, picking it up from criminals who would stay there].
Elias Koteas stars as Sonny, bellhop at this hotel, which has recently been demoted from three stars to two. He has a learning disabled brother, Leroy, at home. Apparently in the novel this was a disabled stepfather, and involved much more psychological depth, and a recurring theme for Thompson. Anyway, Sonny is a loser with a capital L and everyone knows it, including former bellhop Del and former employee and new head of security, Cougar.
Anyway the first half moves quite slowly. We just introduce Sonny and the many supporting characters, and a lovely and clearly disturbed woman in Monique, French woman who appears in one of the rooms. The first half is made up of us watching Koteas go through numerous scenes by himself in which he is showing his extreme strain and generally freaking out. You might have seen Koteas compared to Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver in this role, but the reason for that is that he is asked to spend large amounts of time freaking out in private and talking to himself. He’s good at it, and it’s nice to see the always-good Koteas get his own juicy role, but methinks the director may have been a bit overindulgent with the private freak-outs, especially given the [too long] near two-hour running time. But Koteas does a great job of getting across Sonny’s frustration with his circumstances, as well as the simple-mindedness that keeps him within them.
So eventually Sonny goes up to Monique’s room and they screw. Then she starts screaming! Then he hits her, and she passes out. Del mysteriously shows up, and offers to take care of it. Del also has another idea—these gamblers are going to come have an illegal poker game there, and leave all their money in the safety deposit boxes downstairs. Del and Cougar [an excellent and very funny Kevin J. O’Connor] could run the game while Sonny is downstairs cleaning out the cash. And Del is telling Sonny that Monique is demanding $5,000 in cash or she’ll accuse him of rape. The guy just has a bunch of bad options available, huh?
There’s nothing to be gained by going through the ending, except, as you might guess, the heist hits snags. People die. There are armed standoffs. And it’s all, you know, okay. Not bad. So what’s to mention? One thing I’m not surprised to hear about is that the character at home was changed from an ill stepfather to a disabled brother, because there is a turn in which part of Sonny’s plan hinges on his mentally-unfit brother driving a car by himself, which just never really works. See that big picture of William H. Macy on the cover? Well hope you didn't rent it because of that, because he’s in the movie for all of 60 seconds and never shows up again.
A brief survey of the few reviews on IMDb show us non-Thompson fans who hated it because it’s dull in comparison to any number of other heist movies, and Thompson fans who hated it because it apparently it left out a lot of the psychology of the novel. This has always been Thompson’s difficulty in adaptation—his characters tend to have rich psychologies that evolve through a hundred little encounters and experiences, exactly the kind of thing not meant for movies to express, where large, life-changing experiences are preferred. For example, it’s hard for us to see exactly what bewitches Sonny about Monique, who may as well wear a sticker saying “Hi, My Name Is EMOTIONALLY DAMAGED,” because we just don’t know much more about him other than that he’s stupid and desperate. The rest of the characters may be amusing, but are generally one-note.
All in all, this really SEEMS like a first film. And you can see that Shainberg may have an energetic style [bolt that camera down!] and may be admirably open to indulging his actor’s whims… but you can also see why everyone loved his next film, and everyone hated his film after that. Because it’s a loose style that either you get into or you HATE. Yeah, the best reason to watch this film is that you’re considering casting Koteas in something. Next is if you’re a big Thompson fan, but even then, it’s inessential. The last reason is if you want a good, complicated heist film.
Eh, not really, although you could do worse, and it has good performances.