Since I'm on a bit of a Cold Case binge, I decided to use my next Television Balcony column to see what some of that show's castmembers were up to. That - and a free Amazon Video on Demand credit - led me to checking out Across The Hall, a tense thriller starring Danny Pino (better known as Det. Scotty Valens), Mike Vogel (Cloverfield) and the late Brittany Murphy (whose largest TV credit has to be her voicing Luanne Platter on King of the Hill).
The plot is simple enough (unsurprising, since it actually started as a short film). Terry (Pino) is at his breaking point, because he's sure that his fiancee June (Murphy) is cheating on him. He's so convinced that he's followed her to a cheap hotel (where all affairs take place, of course) and is now sitting - you guessed it - in the room across the hall considering whether or not he should just shoot her and her new boyfriend. For advice, he calls up his friend Julian (Vogel), who decides that he's going to go down there before Terry does something stupid. Here, I have to laugh, because you have to be crazy to put yourself in the line of fire with an unhinged person. Probably about as crazy as somebody would have to be to cheat on Danny Pino.
At the start, this is one of those films that tries way too hard to be creepy. Look, it has titles with weird effects! There's strange red lighting on certain shots! Things are going in slow motion! (By the way, someone left handcuffs attached to the bed.) And if you missed it, here's a bombastic score over the rest of the opening credits! I'll cut it a little slack since this is supposed to be in the film noir genre, but there's noir and then there's beating me over the head with it. The entire movie is a little too in love with the genre.
Once you get past that, there's a schizophrenic film inside - one that has its strengths and its weaknesses. Across The Hall sounds to my ear like a play; characters talk in short sentences, often repetitive or meandering, with pauses in between (which start to drag after awhile). Yet it could never be a stage play, because it bounces so often from Point A to Point B to Point C to Point B that you wouldn't be able to sustain it without the magic of film editing. You have to keep up, being able to take the information you glean in one scene and slot it into the proper chronological order in your head, to make it make sense. This is all before the film reveals its big twist at about the 34-minute mark. In other words, this is not the film to rent if you have a short attention span. You're going to have to hang with it for about half an hour before it gains steam.
There's something else that bothers me here. We're never told exactly when the film takes place, but I'm guessing it has to be fairly modern-day considering the characters have cell phones - yet the sets all look like they're from sometime in the fifties. I'll buy that the hotel hasn't been renovated in ages, but I don't know anybody (least of all any single men) who have a freestanding bathtub in their otherwise pretty much empty bathroom. I'm not picky about when the film takes place, but I would like it to pick one and stick with it.
There are, however, a pair of remarkably good performances here, and they come from both of the male leads. Mike Vogel plays the one we should be rooting for - and even when the movie reveals that he's not that great of a person, you still can't help but pull for the poor guy whose only fault is not thinking before he acts. He's simply trying to find a good way out of a bad situation, which is what the audience wants.
It's almost always more fun playing the disturbed character, however, and so it is that this becomes Danny Pino's movie to lose. He spends its entirety having a nervous breakdown and gets all he can out of that downward spiral, losing his marbles along the way (though we're told early on that he may not have had them all to begin with). The two of them spend a good chunk of the film locked in the same room together, and it's their performances that make the last forty minutes or so the best part, as we're left with nothing but two competent actors. Neither character has the faintest clue of what to do with themselves, and it's the kind of messy confrontation that real life would give us.
Brittany Murphy simply isn't on screen as much as you'd expect a second-billed player to be; it's not that she gives a bad performance, it's that she really doesn't have the time to give enough of one. I'm not convinced that this is the woman Terry wanted to spend his life with; she and Pino get one brief flashback to happier times, in which they have no chemistry, and then she spends the rest of the movie freaked out by him. She just doesn't have the chance to show what we need to see.
This is because the script just doesn't meet the caliber of the acting. There's a last-minute twist that is exactly the reason why I wish filmmakers would stop insisting on last-minute twists. (Is it really a twist ending anymore if it's becoming commonplace to have one?) There is nothing in the earlier parts of the film that suggests to me that the character in question could even pull off such a thing even at their best, which we know they're far from by that point in time. I actually found myself saying to my TV, "Are you serious right now?"
I'm not disappointed that I watched this one, if only because I got to see two good individual performances in it. At the same time, I'm glad that this was an Amazon free rental and not a movie I purchased, because I doubt that I'd ever watch it again. Especially since picking it up will cost you a pricey $22 (at least), I can't recommend it unless you're a hardcore lover of the film noir genre; if you're just a curious fan, you're better off sticking with Cold Case. At least, those flashbacks you'll actually be able to follow.
Until next time, I'll be up here, on The Television Balcony.
For more overlooked big-screen exploits of small-screen stars, check out the Television Balcony column at my blog, DigitalAirwaves.net.