Sometimes all you need is two actors, one room and one camera. Do that 28 times over, and you have a gem of a film. Of course, this takes a great deal of confidence and talent from everyone involved, from the producer to the director to the actors to the crew.

Everyone, in this case, is completely up to the challenge. 28 Hotel Rooms, written and directed by longtime character actor Matt Ross, is that rare accomplishment: a near-perfect blend of comedy and drama. Even rarer, then, that the film’s two sole characters are engaging in a long-spanning affair with each other.

Opening with the couple in the middle of their first (and what they think is last) fling, we see little more than sexual desire. After it’s over, he gives her his number to which she quickly responds, “I’m not going to call you.”

But as the next hotel room number tells (the film is broken into, yes, 28 hotel room numbers), she does give the mystery man a call. And so begins perhaps the truest relationship either person enters in their life. Ross is careful not to judge these people by demonizing their actions. And when she and him aren’t judging themselves, he’s making her laugh, and she’s making him think, as though their relationship was something more.

The quality of the acting on display here is deceiving. It’s easy to assume the chemistry Messina and Ireland are achieving on screen is the result of the thespians playing versions of themselves. Perhaps there is no greater compliment, as it’s hard to remember that these humans on screen, interacting so raw with each other, are performing.

And Ross never shies from what’s happening. His cinematographer, Doug Emmett (who also shot other Sundance film Bachelorette), composes beautiful, full frames, both far away and brutally close. In this world of hotel rooms and night-long romances, there’s little room for middle ground. When these two fight, we see the spit in their mouths, the fire in their eyes. Then we’re shown the room full on, which seems small and lonely. Ross does more with hallway establishing shots than other cameramen do with entire films.

Moments of anger are played a bit too loudly by Messina, who could have used some reigning in by his director at times. For the most part, the strongest moments of the film come in the longest silences and the softest exchanges. In one scene, he describes to her their life together and she begins to cry. When he asked what’s wrong, she changes the subject. Or when she asks him how his wedding went, and he describes with a bit too much enthusiasm. When he’s in her face, he apologizes. She replies, “I shouldn’t have asked.”

These aren’t bad people. They’re good spouses and parents and in love with those they’re spending their life with. Their sin is their love for these extra-curricular encounters, their time apart punishment enough.

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Grade: A-

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