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Review: Always at the Carlyle

July 6, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The Carlyle has seen its share of famous guests over the years, ranging from actors and rock stars to politicians and royalty, and now the famous New York City hotel is the centre of attention in Matthew Miele’s glossy new documentary Always at the Carlyle.

Situated in the Upper East Side, and harkening back to a different era with its elegant decor and glamorous rooms that cost upwards of thousands of dollars a night – and even come complete with monogramed pillowcases for regular visitors – the Carlyle is the hotel of choice for elites visiting the city.

Through interviews with a selection of dedicated staff members, some of whom have worked there for decades and have built up a rapport with the regular guests, we find out some of the history of the nearly a century old hotel, and hear anecdotes about some of the people who have stayed there over the years. There are also appearances from a whole slew of famous faces, including George Clooney, Wes Anderson, Bill Murray, Tommy Lee Jones, Jeff Goldblum, Angelica Huston and even the late Anthony Bourdain, who speak highly of their experiences at the hotel.

We hear stories about the Rolling Stones staying there, and how Jack Nicholson is known to send flowers to the staff. The employees also talk fondly about Prince William and Kate Middleton’s first visit to New York in 2014, when they stayed at the Carlyle in honour of the late Princess Diana, who adored the hotel. We are even told of the time that Princess Diana, Michael Jackson and Steve Jobs all ended up in one of the old elevators together. The hotel is also home to a classic bar where Woody Allen is known to hang out that has walls adorned with artwork by Ludwig Bemelmans, as well as an intimate lounge known as Cafe Carlyle, where Bobby Short performed for many years.

There are moments when a famous name is brought up but an anecdote about their time at the hotel is cut short because of the hotel’s strict policy not to talk about their guests. There is also an overall sense that the film is holding back on some of the more unsavoury stuff that has inevitably gone down at the Carlyle, which is said to become party central every year following the annual Met Gala, especially in light of the #MeToo movement. George Clooney somewhat jokingly says near the beginning of the film that many “dastardly” things have happened at the hotel, but if the filmmakers had chosen to explore this claim it likely would have turned into a much darker exposé.

The trouble is that the film doesn’t have much in the way of substance, and the experience of watching the rich guests fawn over the affluent experiences they’ve had there – and hearing how the staff have gone along with some of their ridiculous demands, including one unnamed woman who insisted they bring her a patch of grass for her dog to piss on in the room – can get somewhat tiring. After all, they are talking about experiences that the majority of us could never even dream of having, and I wish the film had pushed back further on some of the elitism on display.

As it stands, this is not a particularly deep film, and it sometimes feels stretched thin even though it only runs for an hour and a half. The film largely functions as a celebration of the rich and famous, made for those who want to fantasize about their lifestyles. But this lightness of touch is not necessarily a bad thing, and Always at the Carlyle is a breezy and enjoyable enough film that offers enough small pleasures to make it mildly worth seeing.  Just don’t expect much more than a fluff piece.

Always at The Carlyle is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

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