Always At The Carlyle squanders its Old World saga on modern celeb sizzle

By Karen Gordon

Rating: C-plus

In a parallel universe, I’m on my way to the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan right now to hear Bobby Short in the Cafe Carlyle. I’ve always been part New Yorker, drawn to an older romantic version of the city typified by places like the 80-plus-year-old hotel.

The somewhat uneven documentary Always At the Carlyle aims to give us a sense of what it takes to maintain the legacy, and to service celebrities and royalty. They in turn, according to what we see, are drawn by the sense of tradition and Old World (if sometimes faded) elegance.  But its focus on celebrity ends up stealing the film’s soul. 

Director/writer Matthew Miele crams a lot into the film, which is both the good news and the bad news. We get some of its history, its origins as a hotel for the upper-crust and, therefore, a focus on maximum elegance and service. There’s a scene where a staffer goes through a room with a figurative fine-toothed comb, pulling old petals off a small bouquet, extracting what looks like a thread from an empty drawer, sharpening the pillow corners. In a place where I.M. Pei once stayed, details are next to godliness. 

Poignantly, the late Bourdain is a contemporary celeb who touts the Carlyle's Old World charm.

Poignantly, the late Bourdain is a contemporary celeb who touts the Carlyle's Old World charm.

As the film tells us, the hotel’s common spaces all have a provenance, showing the signature of the various designers and painters who painted the walls in the Cafe Carlyle and Bemelmans Bar. There are master gallery paintings in one of the lobbies.  As someone says, “It’s an old hotel and it has problems. but it has a certain patina.”   The decor is so iconic that, the film seems to suggest, a makeover would be the exact wrong move.  
Perhaps the best endorsement for maintaining the status quo is what was allegedly overheard being said by a former New York real estate tycoon named Trump, now turned President. To wit: “I confirm my belief. This place is a joke.”

Director Mathew Miele talks to long-term staff members, from the people who customize the linens (regular clientele have their beds made up with specially monogrammed linens) to the concierge staff, to the “restaurant Captain,”  a term we’re told is no longer used in the business, except at the Carlyle.  To a person, the staff loves their jobs, many saying they hope to retire there.

There are lots of great stories about historic figures, who stayed at the Carlyle. The film deals with the huge list of celebrities past and present who have had a connection to the hotel -  John F. KennedyJohn F. Kennedy Jr., Jackie O. Marilyn Monroe, Lady Diana (whose children continue to stay at the Hotel’s Royal Suite), and writers Mark Twain and, surprisingly, Hunter S. Thompson.

But when it comes to their current clientele, there’s a tight lips policy in place.  The staff reveals that George Clooney is their favorite guest, but that’s about it. 

However, celebrities talk for themselves.. In a collection of interviews gathered over a number of years, we hear comments about the hotel from Clooney, Harrison Ford, Wes Anderson, Lenny Kravitz and many, many, many more. Too many “manys” in fact.

Perhaps most poignantly, the late Anthony Bourdain appears throughout the film, talking with great affection about the hotel and Bemelmans bar in particular.  

The celebrity angle ends up being one of the film’s weaknesses. The film twists and turns seemingly to get as many celebrity stories and comments in as possible. Not all of them are interesting or give us much insight.  And that’s tremendously problematic for this film. It begins to feel like Miele couldn’t make his mind up about who to cut and so threw everyone in. It makes the documentary feel less substantial and more like a promotional video.   

It also also gives the doc a wobbly focus.  It gets odder towards the end when it puzzlingly veers off to pay pay homage to the late Broadway star Elaine Stritch, following which a series of musicians talk about what kind of material they like to sing in one of the rooms. 

There’s also an uncomfortable upstairs/downstairs feeling. Sure, it’s nice to hear George Clooney wax on about the joys of staying for months at the hotel with his wife. and how the staff loves him back. But unless you’re absolutely charmed by everything celebrity, the steady stream of rich and famous talking about the things they can do that you can’t, and the way they’re specially treated that you aren’t, starts to deflate the film.  

It sends mixed messages. In a movie that aims to be  about a hotel that’s succeeded because it’s continued to resist commodification and kept its Old World charm and elegance, the pandering to the Entertainment Tonight era celeb robs it of some of its soul.

Always At The Carlyle. Directed and written by Mathew Miele. Starring Anthony Bourdain, George Clooney, Harrison Ford. Now playing at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.