Matthew Miele’s motto might be “If you can’t join them, fawn over them.” Previously he made a documentary ogling the privileged treatment accorded to super-rich shoppers in “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s,” a gushing love letter to the ritzy store. Now he’s turned his attention to the New York hotel where the one percent can find not just accommodations but endless coddling and supposedly absolute discretion—except, of course, for the tidbits that staff members dole out with a show of reluctance but obvious relish in “Always at the Carlyle.” And it’s all served up without a trace of irony.
The film is almost entirely composed of excerpts from interviews with the staff and guests, though they are embellished with archival footage and scattered bits of information on the history and decor of the place, which frankly are the most interesting elements to be found here. (The rather scattershot editing is by Mac Edgerton, and the new footage shot by Justin Bare.) The remarks on the original construction of the place, along with the descriptions of the paintings on the lobby walls and Ludwig Bemelmans’ murals on those of the bar named after the “Madeleine” artist, are historically informative. (Mini-bios of Moses Ginsberg, who built the place, and interior designer Dorothy Draper, who gave the hotel what might be described as a modified art deco style, are particularly welcome.)
That kind of material is entirely secondary, however, to the cascade of blather from the staff about how much they love working at the hotel and what great people their illustrious guests are (Jack Nicholson and George Clooney are special favorites), and from many honored customers about how staying at the Carlyle feels like being at home—which it probably is, so long as your home is a palatial mansion where a staff of deferential servants will cater to your every whim. In a couple of instances interviewees joke about the entire process—Harrison Ford sneers about the junky room he was given, and after saying that staying at the hotel is proof that you’ve made it, Jon Hamm adds that he never stayed there. Tommy Lee Jones, moreover, cuts off his interview by pleading boredom, a feeling some viewers might sympathize with. Apart from such incidental moments, though, the movie mostly comes across like an extended episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Fatuous.”
Of course, there will be viewers—probably the same ones who watched every minute of the latest royal wedding—who will thrill to hearing about how Prince William and Kate’s visit to the place was carefully prepared. And they’ll probably love hearing Clooney, Anjelica Huston, Wes Anderson and a host of others enthuse over the hotel’s unmatched old-time elegance, and catching a glimpse of Woody Allen joining the cabaret’s band on his clarinet, or Jeff Goldblum on the piano. There’s also an extended tribute to Bobby Short, who performed at the Carlyle Café for years, and another to Elaine Stritch, the legendary Broadway star who was a regular tenant, that are nice. But then one has to put up one more with encomia to the Café from Lenny Kravitz and Alan Cumming, among others.
One can imagine a documentary about The Carlyle that would have gone beneath its self-created image to analyze the legend, and its social implications, in serious terms. Miele’s exaltation of glamour and glitz is as far from that as you can get, not so much an investigation as a celebration of the extra-obsequious treatment that the upper-upper-crust expect—and receive—there.
A final note: you might feel a little queasy when the first well-traveled guest appears on the screen to talk about the Carlyle’s uniqueness, depending on when you watch the film. Seeing it on June 8, 2018, this reviewer did.