Review: Always at The Carlyle

by Andrew Parker

Those in the mood for anecdotes about living the New York City high-life will be sufficiently charmed by Matthew Miele’s documentary Always at The Carlyle, a look at one of the most elite hotels in the world. Anyone looking for a serious, deep-dive into The Carlyle’s enduring brand or anything remotely salacious or critical will be sorely disappointed. Much like going to a party at a film festival, Always at The Carlyle lays the glitz, glamour, and name-dropping on as thick as humanly possible, putting the cares and critiques of the outside world firmly out of place and out of mind. It’s as fluffy as a cloud, and the personalities profiled are warm and charming, but it’s nothing more than a well made, feature length commercial for something most people watching it will never be able to book in their lifetime. Come for the fantasy. Don’t come for anything else.

For almost 90 years, the venerable Carlyle at the corner of East 76th and Madison has played host to royalty, high ranking foreign dignitaries, and the A+ List of celebrities. Boasting impressive architecture, old school class, and some of the most celebrated watering holes in North America, The Carlyle is celebrated for its attention to small details, unparalleled customer service, and an airtight level of discretion that its high profile clientele greatly value. Its astronomically high room prices generally keep the place exclusive, and it isn’t as opulent and modernist as many of its competitors, but those who stay there regularly will tell their friends and acquaintances that they’ll get what they pay for in terms of comfort, service, and security.

Miele isn’t a stranger to this kind of fawning, unchallenging documentary, especially ones that revolve around specific luxury brands. Much like his previous efforts Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s and Crazy About Tiffany’s, Miele’s goal is to make a brand feel both unattainable and relatable. They aren’t so much commercials as they’re carefully constructed, feature length press releases and PR tools. Miele’s M.O. for most of his cinematic work has been to further foster brand loyalty and notoriety. Is that insidious and one sided? Perhaps if one views such things cynically, but at least Miele is up front about his goals, and the aims of Always at the Carlyle are unambiguous from the doting opening frames.

The cavalcade of talking heads trotted out to speak about The Carlyle’s opulence and esteem are a veritable who’s who of famous guests; from George Clooney to Anjelica Houston to Wes Anderson to Sofia Coppola to Lenny Kravitz and so on and so on and so on. The sheer amount of star power contained within Always at The Carlyle feels both unnecessary and overwhelming; like a shock and awe campaign of charm and charisma. That’s not to say that there aren’t some choice quips to be found amid all these doting anecdotes that don’t do anything other than fluffing up an already reliable brand name.

Tommy Lee Jones, a notoriously difficult and ornery person to interview, has never been more relatable than when he tells of his close friendship to one of the hotel’s bellhops. Harrison Ford, also a difficult person to interview, laughs that he’s never been afforded one of the hotel’s more prestigious suites. And then there’s Jon Hamm, a great person to interview, who looks perplexed by his inclusion here, remarking that he would never in a lifetime spend upwards of ten grand a night to stay at The Carlyle, emerging as the film’s only gently dissenting voice in the process.

Very little is made about The Carlyle’s storied history and construction. The backstory behind the hotel amounts to barely a minute of screen time, with Miele firmly placing the emphasis on what The Carlyle means to the people who stay there and not to the people who created it. Bits and pieces of the hotel are examined, with specific reverence, most notably the intricately designed decor of Bemelman’s Bar, which is adorned with the artwork of Madeline creator Ludwig Bemelman. Miele’s subjects speak at great length about how little has changed within the walls of The Carlyle over the past decades, but little about how such institutions are created.

Those hoping for more than a cursory look at the hotel’s history will be sorely disappointed, but if they’re looking for the perspective of the people who make such an institution a welcoming place for high rollers, Always at The Carlyle will deliver some satisfaction. Although many of the behind the scenes workers at the hotel are notoriously tight lipped about their interactions with famous people, the access granted to Miele does help to show the hotel’s inner life. The bellhops, housekeepers, bartenders, elevator operators, and concierges all speak lovingly about their jobs, and even subtly ruminate on how outdated The Carlyle might seem to outsiders. It’s elite, but not overly flashy, and everyone carries with them an attitude to match. Their stories are vastly more exciting than the celebrity anecdotes, and a better documentary could be made out of just following the workers on their day to day routines and not saying anything at all.

Not everything about Always at The Carlyle is wine and roses, but the flashes of darkness that permeate are the result of external optics rather than Miele’s commercially minded work. The late Anthony Bourdain is a prominent interview subject here, and Miele works mightily to both name-check Woody Allen (who frequently plays clarinet at The Carlyle) and distance himself from the controversial auteur.

There’s some discomfort to be found here, but mostly just inadequacy. Always at The Carlyle sells a dream that most will be unable to afford. It’s a commercial disguised as a fairy tale. Now might not be the time to be celebrating class inequality, and if that sort of thing rankles you, I’d stay away from Always at the Carlyle like the plague. Anyone in the mood for some inside baseball anecdotes from celebrities and hotel workers, however, will happily indulge in this bubbly, sugary, nutrition-free concoction.

Always at The Carlyle opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, The Plaza in Calgary, Princess Theatre in Edmonton, Studio 7 in Regina, Roxy Theatre in Saskatoon, and Vic Theatre in Victoria on Friday, July 6, 2018.

Check out the trailer for Always at The Carlyle:

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