The Hotel New Hampshire

British film director Tony Richardson seems happiest when he can make his movies just as loud and frenetic as he possibly can. His jumpy, New Wave treatment of Tom Jones shocked traditionalists but brought him the 1963 best director Oscar.

His next film, The Loved One, was advertised as “The motion picture with something to offend everyone.” In a way, Richardson has been living up to that ad line ever since; The Loved One flopped, and he hasn’t had critical respect—or commercial success—since then.

Much criticism of Richardson’s films has focused on his emphasis on jazzy effects at the expense of characters and storytelling. Richardson often seems unable to resist getting in satiric cheap shots, even after he’s constructed some truth in character and situation.

In The Hotel New Hampshire, Richardson’s adaptation of John Irving’s most recent novel, the thrust is less satiric than in some of Richardson’s work. Instead, the world in the film is similar to the mix of comedic and horrific events that arc through the lives of the protagonists in The World According to Garp, another, much better version of an Irving novel. The difference between the two films is in their tone; Garp took a bittersweet, mater-of-fact approach to its peculiar story, but The Hotel New Hampshire fairly stampedes through its even weirder goings-on.

Richardson keeps things movie so quickly that there’s little time to savor what might have been a stimulating narrative. As it is, the story describes the lives of the Berrys, an American family who run a hotel in New England, then move to Vienna, manage a hotel there, and become involved with terrorists. Father and mother (Beau Bridges and Lisa Banes) keep extending themselves mainly because the father is more interested in pursuing his dreams than in dealing with reality.

Their five children (the three eldest are played by Jodie Foster, Rob Lowe, and Paul McCrane) are somewhat adrift due to this attitude. McCrane is a gay youth tormented by his classmates; Foster is a tough, smart girl who loves a loathsome football quarterback who later rapes her.

Lowe, giving his best performance, plays the central character, the brother who is at a loss during adolescence but knows one thing absolutely: he loves Foster in more than just a brotherly way.

This relationship, we are to understand, is at the heart of the film, but we don’t really discover what it has to do with the rest of the world that the movie creates. Foster’s older, wiser sister remains an obtuse character, although this is by no means the fault of the actress.

Richardson clip-clops his characters through the paces, interspersing the terrible events—such as the rape, and a plane crash that kills two family members—with scattershot comedy and very black humor. Some of the surreal bits hit home; more often, they seem simply misanthropic.

It’s not an entirely dismissable film, and it certainly is a puzzling one. But what can you say about a film that casts playwright Wallace Shawn (of My Dinner with Andre) as a blind man named Freud, and Nastassja Kinski as a bear named Susie? It’s strange.

First published in the Herald, March 1984

Does anybody go to bat for this movie? I remember hearing somewhere that it was a significant experience for the younger actors in it, but I can’t remember who said it—maybe it was Jodie Foster. Richardson went to do TV projects after this, with one final feature, Jessica Lange’s Oscar-winning performance in Blue Sky, a film I remember liking.

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