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‘The Motel Life’: Good acting in story of troubled brothers on the run

We have seen many films about losers on the run, but in the directorial debut of former Chicago siblings Alan and Gabe Polsky, we get an intriguing new take on brotherly love not only gone wrong, but clearly hopeless from the beginning.

While many of the frequent flashbacks in “The Motel Life” (Rated R, 85 minutes) are needed — such as the one explaining how brothers Jerry Lee Flannigan (Stephen Dorff in one the most emotionally charged performances of his career) and Frank Flannigan (Emile Hirsch) were emotionally scarred by their mother’s death — there are far too many, and they confuse the storyline.

But this well-crafted picture is a lovely work of true art, enhanced by terrific animated sequences illustrating Jerry Lee’s love of drawing cartoons and Frank’s ability to concoct tales of the brothers as heroic figures.

Dorff delivers one of the most emotionally charged performances of his career, capturing the hopelessness of a character understandably haunted by his fate of living as a one-legged amputee.

The crux of the story lies on the cross-country, motel-hopping odyssey the Flannigans embark on after Jerry Lee strikes and kills a kid with his car. They head to Elko, Nev., the appropriately sad little burg where Frank hopes he can get back on track with his ex-girlfriend Annie, played nicely here by Dakota Fanning.

The Polsky brothers have known success producing such films as “His Way,” the documentary about filmmaker Jerry Weintraub, and “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans.” With great finesse they have nicely translated Willy Vlautin’s novel to the big screen, and proved they have promising careers ahead.

“The Motel Life” opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Rating: ★★★

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