In the early nineties a rising crop of maverick filmmakers emerged with finely-honed personas and creation stories to match any comic-book super-hero. There was Robert Rodriguez, the self-created Troublemaker who famously made El Mariachi for a reported seven thousand dollars. Incidentally if you genuinely think El Mariachi actually cost seven thousand dollars to make there's a Bridge in Brooklyn I suspect you may be interested in purchasing.
Then there was Quentin Tarantino, the chatterbox patron saints of video store workers, a high school dropout turned cinematic rock star with an encyclopedic knowledge of the nastiest corners of popular culture. Allison Anders, meanwhile, achieved a very modest level of fame as a welfare mother who scrounged up enough money to turn out punky independent character studies until people started paying attention and Alexandre Rockwell, a Yale graduate who totally married the holy living fuck out of the girl from Flashdance. I'm sure he's done other things as well but that's all that comes to mind.
A certain spirit of camaraderie existed between these filmmakers, especially Tarantino and Rodriguez, so they cooked up a plan that must have sounded absolutely fantastic between bong hits at the Weinstein's condo in Park City: why not do an anthology film together about the zany misadventures of a doltish bellboy one New Year's Eve? Richard Linklater was originally slotted to direct a fifth segment but he wisely opted out.
Four Rooms was consequently designed as both a goofy little lark and a coming-out party for a new generation of auteurs united by cooperation rather than torn apart by competition. Pulp Fiction might have made Quentin Tarantino a household name but here was his chance to show that he wasn't above collaborating on equal footing with lesser-known peers. Four Rooms set out to prove that all iconoclastic filmmakers are equal but ended up proving that some iconoclastic filmmakers are more equal than others. It doesn't seem at all coincidental that Tarantino's segment takes place in a penthouse and finds Tarantino batting clean-up.
Four Rooms gets off to a promising start with a kitshy animated opening credit sequence that establishes a mood of breezy, carefree camp the film nearly gives itself a heart attack trying to sustain. Movies that work this hard to be sexy and fun generally end up being neither. Four Rooms is no exception. The film certainly merits an A for effort, especially Tim Roth, whose mannered, twitchy performance suggests what might happen if Jerry Lewis, Stan Laurel and Seinfeld-era Michael Richards all wrestled for control of one single body a la Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin in All Of Me. Roth is a fine actor but he's neither an instinctively brilliant physical comedian nor the second coming of Jerry Lewis and those unfortunately happen to be the inhuman requirements of his role.
Four Rooms immediately digs itself into a huge hole it never threatens to crawl out from in the form of Anders' embarrassing segment about a coven of red-hot witches whose half-naked pagan ceremony constantly threatens to turn into a lesbian make-out party. That might sound like a recipe for the most kick-ass segment in the history of anthology films, especially once you factor Madonna in a tight rubber dress that looks like it was purchased at Mae West's estate sale, a naked Ione Skye, a largely naked Alicia Witt and a naked Sammi Davis into the equation but it plays like the worst kind of leaden camp. And though it seems petty to nitpick when nothing in the sequence works why on earth are half the pagan revelers topless and half more or less fully clothed? Why not just go for full nudity or no nudity at all? And what kind of filmmaker can't convince Madonna to take off her clothes?
Rockwell's segment follows, a grim, curdled black comedy about a nusto husband (Armand Assante) who ties up wife Jennifer Beals (AKA the former Mrs. Rockwell) and tries to rope Roth into their sick, psycho-sexual games. In this sequence and others Four Rooms leans way too heavily on Combustible Edison's atmospheric score to give the film a breezy tone it otherwise fatally lacks. Material this goofy and insubstantial requires a light touch but Anders and Rockwell, two directors not known for their hilarity, kill it with a heavy hand and tin ear for comedy.
That leaves Rodriguez and Tarantino's segments and while I remember cracking up at the Rodriguez segment–a manic live-action cartoon about misbehaving kiddies tormenting Roth–when I saw the film in a nearly empty theater I find Rodriguez's frantic slapstick punishing and unfunny today. It's tempting to argue that Four Rooms is so regressive in its gender politics that Tarantino and Rodriguez's segments are actually the least homophobic and misogynistic but by the time Roth refers to a deceased prostitute in the kids' room as a "dead fucking bitch" and a "dead fucking whore" in quick succession that's no longer the case.
The only section of Four Rooms I enjoyed without reservations was a brief scene linking the Rodriguez and Tarantino segments where Marisa Tomei serves as a deliciously deadpan, stoned audience for Roth's agitated anecdotes about his evening and Kathy Griffin tells Roth that the hotel they work for used to be quite the hot spot for Hollywood big shots but fell onto hard times despite being world-class schlock merchants Cannon's official hotel throughout the eighties. Somehow I can't imagine anyone other than Tarantino writing that line.
Alas, Tarantino isn't just the writer and director of his segment, a rather limp homage to an old episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents about a wager over whether a man can light his lighters ten times in a row: he's also the lead actor.
Anthology films are generally an excellent way to see your favorite filmmakers at their least essential and most self-indulgent.Four Rooms is no exception. Instead of a swanky coming-out party for a fabulous foursome of cinematic talent the movie ended up being more of a dead end though it retains some value as a time capsule back to those halcyon days when cocktail culture riveted a nation, lounge music was tres chic for about five minutes and Quentin Tarantino could do no wrong.
Of course there's a reason I chose to reexamine this film now and not just because I couldn't get my hands on a copy of North. Like every other Geek-American between the ages of twelve and one hundred I am super-duper-psyched about Grindhouse, a movie I humbly predict will be, like, the most awesomest shit ever. Grindhouse seems like a great idea that plays to Tarantino and Rodriguez's strengths but then once upon a time Four Rooms seemed like a great idea too. We all know how well that turned out.Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?: Failure