The bittersweet romance 28 Hotel Rooms begins with young married professional Marin Ireland meeting handsome bestselling author Chris Messina in a hotel bar. They sleep together, thinking of their dalliance as an anonymous, spontaneous encounter between two travelers trying to make the road a little less lonely. But then they keep meeting, every time they happen to be in the same town at the same time. Their lives change over time, as they ride waves of success and failure, and as they see their families back home grow. Even their relationship changes, as at varying points, each is more enchanted by the idea of escape than the other.
This updated take on the premise of Bernard Slade’s classic play Same Time, Next Year takes place over a shorter period, and with shorter scenes—roughly 28, in just 82 minutes—but writer-director Matt Ross deals with the same kinds of issues as Slade, showing how adultery evolves as outside troubles and compatibility troubles intrude on what’s supposed to be a no-strings-attached, sex-only affair. Also like Same Time, Next Year, 28 Hotel Rooms is an actors’ showcase, allowing Ireland and Messina to play characters who reveal themselves in pieces, scene by scene and year by year. But 28 Hotel Rooms is no stagebound filmed play; Ross makes the material highly cinematic, exploring the limited varieties of American hotels with an emphasis on their warm glows and gleaming surfaces.
It’d be better if 28 Hotel Rooms had a longer arc, and more variety from “room” to “room,” rather than reverting so often to arguments. But Ireland and Messina are remarkable, conveying the initially clumsy, then later easy intimacy of two people learning about each other in bed. Because Ireland’s character is initially more reticent than Messina’s—understandably, given her marital status—they bond over little jokes and a few small personal details, in a way that feels far more real than the mumbliness and/or forced chattiness of most movie love stories. Had Ross shown a little more ambition in sketching these characters’ lives together and apart, he would’ve had a much more exceptional film. But in its own small way, by documenting the petty panic of two people who want to be together but are otherwise entangled, 28 Hotel Rooms is often masterful.