Yup, Niagara Motel doesn't exactly sound like a barrel of laughs. But here's the funny part: the sophomore effort from Winnipeg-based director Gary Yates (2004's Seven Times Lucky) is a comedy, albeit of the dark kind. And it works a bit in the same way that Niagara Falls succeeds as a tourist destination: it's wonderful if you can focus on the main attraction while disregarding the garish environment around you.
Based on three of the six one-act plays in George F. Walker's Suburban Motel, the story is set on the dark side of the falls, a place that a cheesy voice-over labels "the most romantic place on earth for lovers young and old." The central feature here is a handful of finely wrought performances, beginning with that of Anna Friel. Her edgy portrayal of Denise, an ex-junkie-prostitute trying to reclaim her daughter, is as sharp as a knife. Despite far subtler roles, Wendy Crewson and Peter Keleghan are equally cutting as a middle-aged, middle-class couple facing financial ruin. They act cool, but their words (and later their actions) are scalding. And Kevin Pollak, as a two-bit hustler named Michael who is trying to exploit the "special quality" of the pregnant waitress Loretta (Caroline Dhavernas), pulls off the acting feat of being disagreeable and lovable at the same time.
Too bad the script strays into strange territory like a befuddled traveler. Scenes such as the aforementioned kidnapping--Loretta's loopy/jealous stapler-salesman boyfriend Dave (Tom Barnett) throws Michael into his car's trunk--are so top-heavy with look-at-me absurdness that they nearly capsize the whole effort. Yet Yates is able to keep the proceedings afloat partly through a consistent aesthetic awash in kitschy tones.
But there's also a subtle unifying theme here: how people deal with consistently terrible personal choices and precipitously dumb luck. When the film works, this busy ensemble piece succeeds because it is as much about laughing at misfits messing up as it is about hoping they can keep their acts together.