At the start of â€śAlways at the Carlyle,â€ť a glossy documentary about the Carlyle Hotel, employees say that they will not reveal anything about this celebrated Upper East Side landmark that has housed superstars, royalty and presidents.
It comes off as an artfully contrived tease, like the scene in the â€śMission Impossibleâ€ť movies in which someone goes on at length about the impenetrable security that makes a big heist so unlikely. But by the end of â€śAlways at the Carlyle,â€ť which is more interested in burnishing a reputation than in exploring it, the introduction seems to operate more like the ill-advised topic sentence for this superficial love letter.
Discretion may be a virtue in the upscale hospitality business, but not in documentary film. If you are going to make a movie that hints at scandal and celebrity gossip and behind-the-scenes glamour, then itâ€™s not too much to ask that some secrets be revealed and a glass or two of juice poured. Instead, the movieâ€™s director, Matthew Miele, collects an impressive amount of talent, including actors (George Clooney, Angelica Huston), supermodels (Naomi Campbell) and journalists (Graydon Carter), who wax poetic about the hotelâ€™s Art Deco style, Old World ambience and white glove treatment favored by the rich and famous.
Every once in a while, someone hints at a great story â€” like the time Michael Jackson, Steve Jobs and Princess Diana shared an elevator â€” but itâ€™s all setup, no punch line. Is it worth even mentioning that Lucille Ball was chewing gum in the hallway? When Piers Morgan says the hotel â€śoozes class,â€ť is that really the best way to get this point across? Much is made of a story about how John F. Kennedy smuggled Marilyn Monroe through a tunnel to the Carlyle, but then the idea is pretty convincingly debunked. So, again, why bother?
An alternative route might have been a more investigative, serious profile that examines how a Polish-born banker, Moses Ginsberg, created the hotel in an image of old New York elitism. The focus on Bobby Short, the cabaret star who regularly played the CafĂ© Carlyle, helps.
The Carlyleâ€™s entertainment options do transport you to another time. I once saw Mort Sahl perform there with a newspaper in hand, just as he did in the 1950s. And while the documentary hints at how this rarefied reputation was constructed and developed, it is far more focused on familiar faces and promotional adjectives. At one point, the chef and CNN host Anthony Bourdain calls the Carlyle â€ścompletely nuts.â€ť I believe him â€” and would love to see the movie that actually makes the case.
Always at the Carlyle
Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes.