Four Rooms (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Four Rooms, a four-segment anthology directed by independent film darlings Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino, has to be one of 1995's major disappointments. Perhaps it's the format itself -- twenty minutes isn't enough time to develop much in the way of characters or story. When Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen tried a similar structure for their ill-fated 1989 offering of New York Stories, "flop" was the most commonly heard description. More problematic than the format, however, is Four Rooms' execution. Shoddy acting and direction typify three of the segments (Robert Rodriguez's being the exception). Even Tim Roth, one of the best actors of the '90s, has his weak moments.

Four Rooms takes place on New Year's Eve at the Mon Signor Hotel, one of Los Angeles' most notorious dives. Ted the bellhop (Roth) has just joined the staff and is in for "a really bad night." Ted is the glue that holds the four stories together as he moves from room-to-room and problem-to-problem. Roth, with an accent that unaccountably fades from American to British, plays Ted like a cross between Jim Carrey and John Cleese.

"The Missing Ingredient"

By far the most lame of Four Rooms' stories, "The Missing Ingredient" lacks anything resembling intelligent dialogue, coherent plotting, or competent acting. This trite mess is easily the low point in the short career of writer/director Allison Anders, whose 1992 release, Gas Food Lodging, was a positive triumph. "The Missing Ingredient" plays like an R-rated episode of a bad TV sitcom, with profanity, bare breasts, and sex failing to liven things up. The story -- what little there is -- revolves around a witches' coven trying to resurrect the spirit of a stripper. All the ingredients (mother's milk, virgin's blood, sweat of five men's thighs, and a year's tears) are ready except for a sperm sample. Since witch Eva (Ione Skye) failed in her assignment to bring this vital component of the mixture, she is charged with seducing Ted and getting what she needs from him.

"The Wrong Man"

Unlike many reviewers, I wasn't a big fan of writer/director Alexandre Rockwell's debut feature, In the Soup. While the film contained several instances of insightful comedy, the entire production seemed self-indulgent. It's doubtful, however, that even those who heaped effusive praise on In the Soup will have many kind words for "The Wrong Man". This totally unfunny segment places Ted in between a man (David Proval) and his wife (Jennifer Beals) while they play S&M games. The episode isn't effectively comical, provocative, or titillating. Rockwell's confused script degenerates into dirty language with a cheap, predictable conclusion. "The Wrong Man" is one of those stories that, because of a certain artistic pretentiousness, thinks it's a lot more humorous and clever than it actually is. Really, it's basically a pointless short that, following right after Anders' disastrous opening, dooms Four Rooms to a forty-five minute start that's almost unendurable.

"The Misbehavors"

After struggling through an unwatchable first two episodes, Four Rooms finally stumbles upon something worthwhile in its third. By now, a large portion of the audience probably won't care. However, for those with patience, "The Misbehavers" offers an oasis in an otherwise creatively barren land. Robert Rodriguez's contribution starts with Ted being induced by a $500 tip to baby-sit for the two small children of a gangster (Antonio Banderas) and his wife (Tamlyn Tomita). Of course, Murphy's Law rears its head, and just about everything that can go wrong, does. Although a fair portion of the humor in "The Misbehavers" is of the crude variety, it's skillfully handled by film maker Rodriguez (El Mariachi), and, as a result, is occasionally sidesplittingly funny. The two child actors (newcomers Lana McKissack and Danny Veruzco) are apt performers, and Tim Roth does his best manic John Cleese imitation. There's also a riotous phone conversation between Roth and Marisa Tomei that, despite its brevity, may represent Four Rooms' comic highlight.

There's no doubt that a fair number of those in the audience will be present because Quentin Tarantino is involved in this film. Unfortunately, Tarantino's episode can't save Four Rooms. Not only is it pointless, but it lacks the energy that characterized the director's feature films (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction). Also, while "The Man From Hollywood" features Tarantino's rapid-fire dialogue, the actor speaking many of the lines is one of the most inept and uncharismatic performers in movies these days: Tarantino himself. "The Man from Hollywood" is based on an old Alfred Hitchcock TV episode, where a man bets his finger that he can start his lighter ten straight times. Ted is brought in to wield the hatchet to remove the digit (should the need arise), earning a fee of $1000 for his troubles. The two bettors are big-time Hollywood director Chester Rush (Tarantino), who's putting up his 1964 Chevy Chevelle, and actor Norman (Paul Calderon), whose pinkie is on the line. Also in the penthouse suite is profanity-spewing Leo (Bruce Willis) and, reprising her role from "The Wrong Man", Jennifer Beals. Even though "The Man from Hollywood" is merely twenty minutes long, it drags, and only the conclusion has any zing. Whether Tarantino is played out has yet to be determined, but his efforts in Four Rooms are feeble at best. It's only the ugliness of Anders' and Rockwell's segments that make Tarantino's somewhat palatable -- but "The Man from Hollywood" is still no better than mediocre by his, or anyone else's, standards.

At its best, Four Rooms is reminiscent of John Cleese's '70s TV series Fawlty Towers. Far more frequently, however, this movie recalls one of the worst hotel movies of all time, Blame it on the Bellboy. While spending ninety minutes watching Four Rooms doesn't rank alongside the distasteful experience of a full night's stay at the Mon Signor, it's still a poor way to waste an evening -- New Year's Eve or otherwise.

Four Rooms (United States, 1995)