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'Chelsea Walls'

Atmosphere outdoes plot and character in 'Chelsea Walls'

Friday, July 26, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

'Chelsea Walls'

RATING: R for language

STARRING: Uma Thurman, Kris Kristofferson, Robert Sean Leonard, Rosario Dawson.

DIRECTOR: Ethan Hawke

WEB SITE: www.chelseawalls


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Three thousand miles east of the Eagles' Hotel California, a different kind of fevered dream attracts tortured souls. Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel is a real place, a residence for artists of all stripes. Dylan Thomas was just one of many famous denizens over the years.

"Chelsea Walls," now at the Oaks Theater, concentrates on a more anonymous bunch, a fictional smattering of creative types struggling with their work, their finances, their demons.

Adapted by Nicole Burdette from her stage play and directed by Ethan Hawke, the movie takes place almost entirely within those Chelsea walls. That's what reminded me of "Hotel California." These folks are trapped by the creative impulse that drives them. They are so busy chasing their muse that they cannot have truly loving relationships with other people.

These characters push the cliche of the struggling artist to the limit: the drunken writer (Kris Kristofferson), the obsessed musician (Robert Sean Leonard), the penniless poet (Rosario Dawson), the mad prophet of the elevator (John Seitz).

All of them, ironically, yearn for meaningful human contact, something they only seem able to achieve in their work. Some of them have enablers: the writer's woman friend (Tuesday Weld), who knows they cannot co-exist; the musician's goofy roommate (Steve Zahn); the poet's wayward lover (Mark Webber). And then there's Grace (Uma Thurman), who allows herself to be used as a sounding board and seems somehow always ready but not willing to go further.

"Chelsea Walls" offers barely a smidgen of a plot and even skimps to a surprising degree on the characterizations. Only Kristofferson, acting more virile than he has in a long time despite a spider's web of wrinkles, plays someone who is opened up to any significant degree, although Leonard is the closest thing in the film to a central figure.

What director Hawke hath wrought is not so much a story or even a character study so much as it is a tone poem in which a lighting effect or the musical backdrop may convey as much emotional meaning as a line of dialogue or an actor's expression.

Hawke's recent work with director Richard Linklater has obviously influenced him. He starred in "Tape," a movie set in a single room, and was both a voice and a model for a character in the animated "Waking Life," which also depended to a large degree on its visual effects to enliven its philosophical musings. In some ways, "Chelsea Walls" feels like a live-action version of "Waking Life."

Understandably, many filmgoers will grow impatient with Hawke's approach to the material and with his refusal to service what seem like the minimal requirements of storytelling.

But the film works best at its most abstract, when it forgets altogether about plot and character and aims strictly at establishing mood. The most striking sequence intercuts between a seemingly ancient jazz singer performing in a nightclub (Jimmy Scott) and Kristofferson on the telephone, surrendering to the bottle and trying to communicate with his woman (or so I assume -- Hawke shoots it as a one-way monologue).

Similar moments occur when Dawson lets her feelings out in a poem and when Leonard sings to Zahn's accompaniment in a makeshift recording studio in their bathroom. You can get wonderfully lost in the reverie of these moments, just as the characters seem to find themselves in their art.

And if the movie merely keeps you wondering if you can ever leave, you can always check out Vincent D'Onofrio, Natasha Richardson, Frank Whaley and Harris Yulin in glorified cameos.

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