“All I’ve ever done is fuck up,” one character remarks in The Motel Life, Alan and Gabe Polsky’s debut feature. That broad judgment rings too true in this picture, which portrays brothers Frank and Jerry Lee (Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff) as little more than, well, fuck-ups.
Recalling characters from a Bukowski novel or Tom Waits song but with less complexity, the brothers are endowed by their creators with little agency, not doing much except lamenting the sorry state of their lives. Early on, alcoholic Jerry has accidentally committed a hit-and-run, killing a child, and Frank needs to get the cash to split town with his brother before the cops close in.
This development presents some obvious narrative difficulties (sympathizing with a hit-and-run driver isn’t easy), and the plot is abandoned as the film moves forward, turning into a character study of two broken men trying to sort through the mistakes that comprise their messy lives.
This is the stuff of much compelling fiction, but The Motel Life too often revisits the same emotions and sentiments, leaving us with a portrait that feels frustratingly simple. While the devotion the brothers have for one another is effectively touching — in one moving sequence, Frank helps Jerry, who has one leg, take a shower — it’s hard to shake the feeling that a more probing, complex script might have helped the endeavor enormously.