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Originally published Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 3:00 PM

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An intriguing look at a couple's secret affair in '28 Hotel Rooms'

A movie review of "28 Hotel Rooms," Matt Ross' intriguing drama about two lovers who act out a long-term affair in a succession of hotel rooms over years.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'28 Hotel Rooms,' with Chris Messina, Marin Ireland. Written and directed by Matt Ross. 82 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Sundance Cinemas.

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The engrossing "28 Hotel Rooms" is about the difference between the life some people live and the way they hold onto a corner of the life they wanted instead.

Directed by actor Matt Ross (cable TV's "Big Love"), this feature-length duet for two very good performers — Chris Messina (HBO's "Newsroom") and Tony-nominated Marin Ireland ("reasons to be pretty") — is a chamber piece rooted in semi-improvisation.

Ingeniously set in a succession of comfortable, blue-and-gray-toned hotel rooms over several years, the story is entirely driven by a clandestine love affair between an author (Messina) and a corporate analyst (Ireland) — we never learn their names — who are each involved with other people.

Against all odds, their one-night stand as strangers evolves into a long-term attachment neither wants to surrender, despite sporadic and brief encounters. They fall in love and yearn to be together, but their real lives with real commitments are anchored beyond the confines of a rented room. Inevitably, their emotional toll grows as lost opportunities become more serious and more wounding.

Ross' simple concept of capturing a romantic cycle strictly within hotel rooms initially feels like a glorified gimmick. But over time, intriguing nuances flower. We see, in those rooms, haunting portraits of Messina's cocky novelist growing humbled by failure and compromise, and we watch Ireland's soulful character gradually lose her sense of self as an exhausted mom, businesswoman and restless spouse.

Yet Ross wisely dodges the question of whether this tale is a genuine tragedy or just a case of two people who decided they can't or won't find happiness in the other 99 percent of their lives. Whatever the case, those hotel rooms are like zoo cages for observing trapped lovers.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com

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