Bellhop Sonny (Elias Koteas) is about to turn 30 and is looking at options that just get meaner and nastier. He works at the Stillwell hotel, a seedy dump whose flashy decor does nothing to hide the desperation and misery that lie behind every door. He owes money to the hotel's head of security, Cougar (Kevin J. O'Connor), an operator with a dirty finger in every pie and a sadist to boot. His home life revolves around caring for his retarded brother Leroy (Jay Leggett), a giant with the mind of an eight-year-old, and even that arrangement is in danger: Sonny is afraid that county social workers are going to declare him an unfit guardian and have Leroy placed in an institution.

Sonny brings his last piece of miserable misfortune on himself. He helps out beautiful hotel guest Monique (Laure Marsac) after she stages a half-hearted suicide attempt, and develops a massive crush on her that he convinces himself is true, once-in-a-lifetime love. But after a frenzied, spur-of-the-moment fling, Monique freaks out: Since not having sex with guests is the Stillwell's most sacrosanct rule of conduct for employees, Sonny faces the loss of his job.

Apparent salvation appears in the form of Sonny's old pal Del (Bruce Ramsey), who just happens to be staying down the hall. He gets Monique to quiet down, and tells Sonny that he and Cougar are planning to rob Lenny Ish (Philip Baker Hall), who runs an illegal, high-stakes card game out of the hotel. If he'll play inside man, they'll cut him in, and Sonny's troubles-his money troubles, at least-will be over. Anyone who's ever read Thompson, seen a noir film or has one iota of common sense knows right here that Sonny's troubles are only beginning. The robbery goes wrong, people die, the cops are all over everyone, and Sonny has that sinking feeling that he's about to get the shaft again. Can he maneuver and weasel and maybe come out with his head above water, just this once?

Director and producer Steven Shainberg, an AFI grad making his feature debut after several short films, seems driven by the belief that previous adaptations of Thompson's novels-which include The Grifters, After Dark, My Sweet, The Killer Inside Me, Coup de Torchon (based on Pop. 1280), This World, Then the Fireworks and two versions of The Getaway-have been way too sunny. Hit Me is certainly bleak, right down to the fact (clearly unanticipated) that it features the last appearance of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who survived Cambodia's killing fields to be murdered by street thugs in the U.S. But Shainberg seems to have missed a crucial element of Thompson's style and appeal: his bitter, mordant sense of humor. Without it, Thompson's books would be a miserable ordeal, and that's what Hit Me is.

With the exception of Philip Baker Hall (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights), whose Lenny Ish is a craggy, matter-of-fact smalltown tough through and through, everyone's acting up a sweaty storm; you keep thinking that if they'd all take a cool shower and put on some fresh clothes, they wouldn't feel the prick of existential despair so deeply. But their efforts amount to precious little. Hit Me feels 100-percent false, stagy and stylish despite the miseries that wrap ever more tightly around Sonny's chest as he digs himself deeper and deeper into the manure pile. And more than two hours of it is way too much: Thompson wrote short, and filmmakers adapting his books would do well to do the same. In fact, reading Thompson's original novel, A Swell-Looking Babe, is a much better idea then sitting through this pretentious, tedious exercise in low-life posturing.

--Maitland McDonagh