Sometimes memory is cruel to us. We hold onto faults and disappointments rather than the minor little victories and joys that we experience all the time and let slip by. “The Hotel New Hampshire” is one of those brutal memories for me. The film was based on one of my favorite books and it starred a good cast headed by Jodie Foster. My reaction to it at the time was weak and over the years has gotten more antagonistic. The return to the movie for this project was not expected to be a happy one. Imagine my surprise that instead of a malignant tumor of a film, I found a flawed but mostly sincere interpretation of the book that I love.
If you have read any of John Irving’s novels, you know that they are full of prostitutes, wrestling, bears and frequently Vienna. The characters are oddballs and have major sexual hangups of some sort or other. In spite of how off putting some of the characteristics are, Irving usually manages to get us to care for them before he tortures us with their fates. A John Irving story is not going to end on a happy note, although there will be happy moments along the way.
The film version of the novel follows the story line very closely. An odd couple manages to build a life and a family while still remaining quirky in every sense of the word. Beau Bridges plays Win Berry, the patriarch of the family. He takes a chance as a young man and makes a living with a motorcycle act with a bear that he takes over from a Jewish immigrant from Austria who decides to return to Europe before the second world war starts. Over time he becomes a teacher at a second rate prep school in his home town. He has bigger dreams though and ultimately starts a hotel in the area to accommodate the families that visit their children at the school. In the process he marries the sweetheart he met in the summer he was mentored by the Austrian handyman/circus act. They have five children and they move into the hotel to run it. In the book this takes up most of the first few chapters, in the movie it takes about five minutes. The story has shifted from the parents to the children and the film emphasizes that shift from the beginning.
Bridges is well cast but quickly shuffled off to the side as the story focuses on John and Frannie. A brother who develops a not very wholesome attraction to his sister and the sister who knows it and acts as if she is wise beyond her years. In the book, the story is narrated by John but in the movie he becomes a character that is front and center and it was a little bit startling to me when I saw it. Rob Lowe was a heartthrob at the time and was cast in many roles that may not have fit him well because he was hot rather than right. Jodie Foster becomes the tragic figure that drives the story for the most part when her character is gang raped on Halloween. Five years before she won her first Academy Award as a defiant victim of a gang rape in “The Accused” she plays a very passive victim in this story. It is not hard to anticipate tragedy here, earlier in the story, the older brother Frank, that neither she or John are very close to, is brutally bullied by the same crowd of jocks in a foreshadowing scene that leaves only a little to the imagination. What is twisted about the story is that before she is raped she has a romantic fixation on the leader of the gang. Even after her brother was assaulted, she carries a bit of a torch for Chipper Dove played by Matthew Modine. The assault on her brother brings the three siblings closer together but still does not separate her from her fixation on Chipper. Later, after the horrifying experience, we learn that she has actually tried to correspond with him, as if they were still potential paramours. Yep, this is the sick world of a John Irving novel. The film stays true to the spirit of the book by keeping the brutality, but sometimes undermines the story by making what light moments there are into a cinematic cliche with funny film speeds and comic shots of facial expressions. This is one of the ways that the movie falls down a bit. Still there are some nice elements in the first act sections involving John and the hotel waitress and involving the families flatulent black lab named Sorrow. Once again, subtlety is not a strong point in an Irving tale, his strength is character and story not nuance. Actress Anita Morris who gained some acclaim in the mid 80s playing sexed up characters in a number of film and television projects, actually gets to show a little of her acting chops in this film. As John’s tutor in the ways of the flesh, she is alluring but when he gets interested in a local girl and then his family heads off to Europe, she is abandoned and the moment is poignant because of her performance.
The move to Europe, to reunite with Freud the Austrian friend who now runs a near flophouse hotel and is blind, starts the second act. Here we are introduced to the usual cast of Irving prostitute characters and some radicals that seem innocuous enough at first but as can be expected in an Irving story, do not stay safe for long. Even more important is Suzie the Bear. A girl so insecure in her looks that she accepts a life dressed up as a bear to meet the needs of hiding herself and Freud’s need for a smart bear. Freud is perfectly cast by Wallace Shawn who most of you will know as Vizzini in “The Princess Bride” or as the voice of Rex in the “Toy Story” films. Suzie on the other hand is miscast. Nastassja Kinski, a model turned actress is a beautiful woman and it is difficult to accept that she sees herself as ugly. When I first heard that the movie was being made and that Jodie Foster was in it, I expected her to be Suzie the Bear. She is a lovely woman but had a lot of that awkward child look on her still and it seemed more realistic for her to have that part.
Modine returns as the doppelganger of Chipper Dove in the form of Ernst the pornographer who schools Frannie in the baser forms of sexual deviancy. The European section feels truncated even though it has all the key elements. It simply zips by so quickly that stories don’t always make sense and characters get ground up quickly and leave before we have much chance to know why they are there. If there is a fault in the movie, I believe it is in the way this part of the film plays out. Another ten minutes of exposition and character development might have made a big difference.
The family eventually returns to the States in something of a triumph. The youngest sister who can’t grow any bigger has written a novel that becomes a best seller and the family is recognized as heroes for their part in a terrorist action. The pace here becomes even more furious as vengeance is sought on Chipper Dove in a grotesque play concocted by the young author and featuring acting by various family members and friends. This becomes the catalyst for John and Frannie to exhaust the sexual tension between the two siblings by having a single night to scratch that itch before they both move on. Of course moving on involves more tragedy and the catch phrase from the book and the movie involves the metaphor of passing the open windows. Well, not everyone manages to do that through the end of the film. So there is more tragedy before all of the disparate problems get resolved. Again the last sections of the movie feel rushed and Frannie as a sensational actress seems to come out of nowhere as does the romance that finally frees Suzie from her bear costume. It all is covered in the film but it feels like someone telling a story when they suddenly fear that their audience is getting bored. If you read the book it will make much more sense and you will see that the film has a high degree of fidelity to the novel. On the other hand, “The World According to Garp” worked as a film because there were some mild changes and they make a movie rather than a movie of the book.
I watched this film on Amazon Prime and it looked great. In it’s first week in theaters it made just over a million dollars on 244 screens. As you can see it was not a financial bonanza. It is maybe one of the more obscure titles in the project, and it does have flaws but I think it is worth a visit. If you never read the book, you will have some difficulty but the odd shift in tone and the weird depressing series of events is exactly what most of Mr. Irving’s work consists of.