Biologist Thomas Henry Huxley was counseling medical students, not hip young filmmakers, when he noted, not entirely in jest, "There is the greatest practical benefit in making a few failures early in life." But Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, the hotshot directors responsible for Four Rooms, might also find some comfort and inspiration in Huxley's sage advice. Now that they've gotten this odious self-indulgence out of their systems, perhaps all four will be able to move on to better things.
Anders (Gas Food Lodging), Rockwell (In the Soup), Rodriguez (El Mariachi) and Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) made their breakthroughs at roughly the same time and became very friendly as their paths crossed repeatedly on the 1992 film festival circuit. When these newly hot properties began tossing around ideas for a joint project -- an omnibus of short, snappy, jet-black comedies -- it wasn't surprising that a major player (i.e., Miramax Films) tossed money their way to make their dreams come true. What is surprising is the extent to which those dreams turned into nightmares.
Set in a once-trendy Los Angeles hotel during a long, dark New Year's Eve of the soul, Four Rooms is a fiasco in four-part disharmony. The only constant factor in the otherwise unrelated episodes is Tim Roth as Ted, a twitchy bellhop who must cope with lascivious witches, unruly youngsters, obnoxious blowhards and an exceedingly kinky married couple. Ted encounters these unwelcome guests on what is said to be his first night on the job.
If you didn't know better, you might think this is Roth's first appearance in a movie. By turns strenuously frenetic and aggressively imbecilic, Roth comes across as someone doing an amateurish imitation of Jerry Lewis in The Bellboy. That he's equally obnoxious in each episode suggests that all four directors decided not to direct him so much as unleash him.
Anders' segment, "The Missing Ingredient," is a feeble anecdote about a coven of witches -- Madonna, Valeria Golino, Lili Taylor, Ione Skye and Sammi Davis -- and their efforts to invoke the spirit of a fallen comrade with the help of "a precious bodily fluid." To obtain the latter, Skye's character has to give Ted a blowjob. Ted objects, though not very strenuously. That may sound crude, but the segment itself is even worse. Worst of all, it plays like a long, unfunny joke told by someone who's forgotten the punch line. It doesn't conclude, it merely stops. But not fast enough.
Rockwell's contribution, "The Wrong Man," is a slight but tedious farce about a jealous husband (David Provall) who ties his wife (Jennifer Beals, Rockwell's real-life spouse) to a chair, waves a gun in her face and furiously accuses her of infidelities with Ted. None of this is the least bit funny, and much of it is painful to endure.
Rodriguez's segment, "The Misbehavers," is good for a few nasty laughs, provided you don't stop to question the casual amorality of the piece. Antonio Banderas gives the movie a brief jolt of comic flair as a macho gangster who pays Ted a hefty tip to baby-sit the gangster's young children. But the children are too rambunctious to manage easily. They smoke, drink champagne, view naughty movies on television, play with a discarded hypodermic needle -- and, eventually, uncover a decomposing corpse. Overall, this is a slick but heartless piece of work, technically proficient but thoroughly unpleasant.
The final segment, Tarantino's "The Man from Hollywood," is a loud and unduly protracted shaggy-dog story loosely based on a classic episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Tarantino casts himself as an overbearing comedy star who bets a crony that the crony can't light his cigarette lighter ten times in a row. If he can, he wins Tarantino's 1964 convertible. If he can't, he loses his little finger.
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Once again, Ted gets a large tip, this time to wield the meat cleaver in case the crony can't light up. Everyone in this segment, including an unbilled Bruce Willis, acts at the top of his lungs. Even so, the payoff of Tarantino's sick joke is genuinely funny, if only because it's so abrupt and matter-of-fact.
It's a good thing that, prior to making Four Rooms, Anders, Rockwell, Rodriguez and Tarantino each completed at least one follow-up feature, to avoid the impression of being mere flashes in the pan. (With Pulp Fiction, Tarantino was especially adept at beating the sophomore jinx.) Otherwise, Four Rooms might have dimmed their rising stars.
As it stands, the movie will likely be remembered as nothing more than a curious footnote in their careers. Don't look for it to be listed prominently on their resumes in years to come. -- Joe Leydon
Four Rooms. Directed by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Rated R. 96 minutes.