Review: Four Rooms (dir. various, 1995)

On paper, it looked like such a good idea. Back when they were still unknown, four independent directors — Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging) and Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup) — agreed to tell four different stories set in a hotel on New Year’s Eve, with a bellboy (Tim Roth) as their only link. With the one-two punch success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Four Rooms became an opportunity for the others to ride Tarantino’s coattails.

Consider the opportunity wasted. Four Rooms is an utterly lackluster production that most involved would be wise to keep out of their portfolios. It also represents the first solid nail in Tarantino’s cinematic coffin.

The opening segments are largely forgettable and little more than an excuse for Roth to warm up his Jerry Lewis cum Mister Bean persona (spiced with a “Help me!” shriek worthy of The Fly). Anders’ ‘Strange Brew’ has something to do with a witches’ coven trying to resurrect a dead stripper, but anything that might have given this story a point got dumped on the cutting room floor. Valeria Golino, Lili Taylor, Ione Skye, Sammi Davis and Madonna don’t look like witches, they look like actors pretending to be witches. (Presumably, you can tell the difference between those who need the work and those who are just doing the director a favour based on which ones bare their breasts and which don’t.) The marital masochism of Rockwell’s ‘Two Sides to a Plate’ is little more than a shouting match between David Proval and Jennifer Beals, set against the irritating backdrop of Roth’s terrified wheezing.

The only director to come out of this mess looking good is Rodriguez. Where his compadres’ weaknesses are sharply accentuated by the short film format, Rodriguez seems to thrive on the genre’s limitations. ‘The Misbehavers’ is a dynamic pressure cooker of a tale, a calculated crescendo of chaos that starts out quite normally, then takes a lateral jump or two into utter weirdness, free of the languid introspection and stale moralizing that made Desperado so loose and baggy.

Everyone involved in ‘The Misbehavers’ seems to be having a lot of fun, and Rodriguez peppers his darkly comic tale with self-parody and in-jokes. Desperado star Antonio Banderas has a delightful machismo-mocking cameo as the father of two children who fight over a TV brimming with self-references. The cartoon channel prefigures Rodriguez’s own manic style, full of roving cameras and two-second inserts; the gyrating torso on the nudie channel belongs to From Dusk Till Dawn co-star Salma Hayek; and the clips from Bedhead, Rodriguez’s wildly whimsical black & white student film, form a sort of prototype for this story’s sibling rivalry.

At least Rodriguez keeps his self-indulgences subtle. Tarantino, on the other hand, botches his own story by focusing the action on his two worst assets: his acting and his face. When he first meets the bellboy, he shoots the entire scene from Roth’s point of view, which means that for several uninterrupted minutes, the only thing we see is Tarantino’s hammy visage. The dialogue is as flat as the champagne Tarantino bitches about and the characters readily admit that their story — given the self-gratifying title ‘The Man from Hollywood’ — is stolen whole from an old Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode.

All the tricks that saved Tarantino in the past are missing: no surf music, no gore, no gimmicky jumping around between flashbacks, no Harvey Keitel. Like the tipsy epicures in his script, Tarantino tries to prolong the party long past its climax. Indeed, Four Rooms as a whole is a lot like a boring New Year’s Eve party: an hour or so of thumb-twiddling to kill time before the fireworks, and then you’re left with annoying guests who don’t know when to call it a day.

— A version of this review was first published in the Ubyssey.

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