As any critic will tell you, when you’re watching a comedy with an audience, it doesn’t matter how bad the movie is — even the jokes that are making you groan are going to provoke laughter. (That’s why comedies are always screened in advance; the studios want the audience giggles to rub off on you.) But at the Venice Film Festival, when I saw “The Palace,” Roman Polanski’s garish debacle of an ensemble comedy, I was sitting in the Sala Darsena, which seats 1400 (and was full), and on the rare occasion when a line in the movie got laughs, it was literally coming from about six people. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a giant theater this deadly silent for a movie that’s working this strenuously to amuse you.
Polanski, if you look back over his credits, has an astoundingly consistent track record when it comes to comedy and satire. He’s godawful at it. I first discovered this in college when I saw Polanski’s “The Fearless Vampire Killers” (which at the time was called “The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck,” a title that sounds like it was written by Henny Youngman). That 1967 horror comedy was wooden enough to feel like it lasted three hours. Other laughless riots by Polanski include “Pirates” (1986), an unwatchable farce starring Walter Matthau in a piece of peg-legged acting that would have been chased off “Saturday Night Live,” and “What?,” his X-rated (and execrable) 1972 ingenue-in-a-decadent-villa movie starring Sydne Rome (who shows up in “The Palace” as one of several plastic-surgery victims).
It’s not that Polanski is entirely without a funny bone. A handful of his greatest films, notably “Rosemary’s Baby,” have a mordant touch of suspenseful dark wit. But when his comedy isn’t rooted in drama, Polanski becomes the directorial equivalent of someone trying to get laughs with a whoopee cushion. Plus, he’s now 90, with a sense of timing so creaky it feels literally decades out of date.
“The Palace” is set entirely in the Gstaad Palace, the famous luxury hotel nestled in the Swiss Alps, which Polanski (in the press notes) says that he’s been going to for close to 50 years. The hotel, which opened in 1913, is a playground for the wealthy, the famous, and the aristocratic, and that’s the taking-off point for “The Palace.” Polanski gathers a crew of rich bumblers and slumming swells, setting the entire film on New Year’s Eve of 1999. That’s right, it’s the night of Y2K, which the characters are in an anxious tizzy about. Will the world end? Mostly, though, everyone in the movie is worried about him or herself, since Polanski, in his tone-deaf attempt at “satire,” has made each of his characters into a navel-gazing, one-note waxworks fusspot. Each of them shows up, flaunting their petty concerns and nabob narcissism, until the film moves on to someone else.
There’s a retired male porn star (Luca Barbareschi), who the movie treats as if he were as legendary as Humphrey Bogart. There’s a crew of shady Russians, who’ve arrived with suitcases full of cash and noisy arm-candy girlfriends. (On TV, they watch Boris Yeltsin resign and the young Vladimir Putin step in for him.) There’s an 87-year-old Texas billionaire, Mr. Dallas (John Cleese), and his 22-year-old wife, Magnolia (Bronwyn James), the two of whom are celebrating their anniversary. There are the aforementioned cosmetic-surgery harridans, who look as fake and stretched as Katherine Helmond in “Brazil” crossed with the Joker. There’s a plastic surgeon to the stars, Dr. Lima (Joaquim de Almeida), and there’s the Marquise (Fanny Ardant), who insists on feeding caviar to her pooch, with gross results.
While we’re on the subject of plastic surgery, it seems only fitting that the one other name actor in the cast, in addition to John Cleese and Fanny Ardant, is Mickey Rourke, who looks less wrinkled but even more mangled than he did in “The Wrestler.” He plays some sort of irate financier named Mr. Crush who sports an orange tan and a golden-blond Andy Warhol wig, and who plans to use Y2K to fiddle with the number of zeroes in his financial accounts (i.e., he’s going broke and needs to fraudulently increase his wealth). Mr. Crush’s adult son, Vaclav (Danny Exnar), shows up with his family from some unpronounceable Slavic country, trying to reunite with his father. But part of what’s dreadful about “The Palace” is that though it takes the abstract form of a follies-of-the-rich panorama like “Triangle of Sadness” or Robert Altman’s “Ready to Wear,” no one in the film quite interacts. The script, by Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski, and Ewa Piaskowska, comes closer to “The Love Boat” with (geriatric) sex and (bad) drugs.
Nothing in the movie is funny. Not the constant scrambling of the hotel manager, Mr. Kompf (Oliver Masucci), to placate the overgrown babies who are his guests. Not John Cleese overplaying the oil-tycoon drawl and then going the way of “Weekend at Bernie’s” (apologies for the spoiler — I hope I haven’t ruined the movie for you). Not the live penguin who gets shipped to the hotel and keeps wandering around. The movie’s one thin drop of “relevance” is that though “The Palace” is set 25 years ago, it’s tweaking the one percent because that’s who you’re supposed to tweak in 2023. Polanski, in his way, wants to play ball; he’s out to make a “commercial” comedy. Yet he ends the film on a note of violation so gratuitous it struck me as weirdly passive-aggressive. In the last shot, we see the Marquise’s dog humping that penguin from behind (you heard me). It plays, in an odd but knowing way, as a metaphor for the crime that still haunts Polanski. Even at 90, he wants to be the “bad boy.” In “The Palace,” though, he’s just a bad filmmaker.