The idea of late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson playing a drunken caretaker at a dive motel in Niagara Falls has promise. Nearly everything else in Niagara Motel does not, whether it's the young waitress thinking about a career in porn, a fly-by-night promoter who shakes down a stapler salesman, or a middle-class husband who's been downsized prematurely, forcing his wife to flirt with ideas of flesh peddling.
More than half the characters who parade before the screen in this Canadian film based on George F. Walker's short plays feel contrived, if not altogether unbelievable, which means this latest film from Winnipeg-based director Gary Yates has some significant problems as it leaves the gate, the biggest of which is the question that keeps arising as you watch: "Who cares?"
Not one of these predictable cardboard personalities is sympathetic, and that includes Phillie (Ferguson), the besotted old janitor who lost his wife on the Maid of the Mist while they were on their honeymoon.
Yes, you read that right. His wife apparently slipped on the deck of the old tourist barge and fell into the drink, never to be seen again, leaving Phillie to spend his days numbing the pain of a love unrealized as he surrounds himself with images of the killer falls.
Phillie is the centrepiece in Niagara Motel. His pain frames the misadventures of those who reside at Niagara Motel, a fleabag inn in the heart of Wedding City, and that means just about everyone staying at the downscale resort has some big issues to deal with.
For Loretta (Caroline Dhavernas), a young woman working at the local diner owned by a crazy Serb and his quiet, introverted daughter, the problem is pregnancy and the fact that although she has more than enough male attention in her life, she has little desire for any of her would-be mates.
Loretta just wants to make money, and at the urging of the fast-talking Michael, the local nickel-and-dime pimp, she considers making a fast buck starring in a porn reel, because in Walker's universe that's the only realistic fall-back plan open to women.
Even a middle-aged mom considers hooking in Niagara Motel. After watching the local call girl make a few bucks in a neighbouring room, Lily (Wendy Crewson) decides she has to make ends meet for her family, and gosh darn it, if selling herself is the only answer, then good golly, that's what she'll do.
Though neither female character is a drug user or has any history of prostitution, being a whore holds all the answers. Forget trying to get a job at Tim Hortons, or phone soliciting. Nope. For the women in this movie, there's only one way to make extra money.
Not only is that entirely unrealistic, it's downright offensive. Needless to say, I found myself pitying poor Crewson and Dhavernas as they navigated the shallow waters of their stupid characters. To their credit, they do a credible job giving these two cardboard characters some depth and humanity, but that only makes the flimsy set-up all the more awkward and noticeable.
Good actors without a good script end up working incredibly hard just to make each moment worth watching, and thanks to Crewson's uptight body language, we can almost suspend disbelief long enough to think a middle-aged mom from an affluent suburb would sell herself at a fleabag motel to save her man and her marriage.
Then the voice of reason kicks in, and we remember that prostitution does not offer the lifestyle of Pretty Woman but a life dealing with sexually transmitted diseases, violent pimps, and potentially homicidal johns. It's not something moms turn to when the bake sale goes bad.
Maybe on the stage these mono-dimensional characters worked some dramatic magic. But on screen we need nuance, not broadly drawn theatrics. Besides, every character in Walker's glossary of human experience feels like a cheesy cliche: the man without a job, the wife looking for her marriage, the poor pregnant girl, the grieving alcoholic. We've seen these people a hundred times before in better movies with better intersecting storylines.
Director Yates does a decent job pulling the threads of the story together with a unified look and feel to the frames, but when you don't care what happens to the people, you don't generally care what happens in the movie.