I had an idea that I’d only seen part of Four Rooms previously, and having now definitively watched the entire thing, I can see where that notion sprang from. It’s a picture that actively encourages you to think it never existed. Much of it isn’t even actively terrible – although, at the same time, it couldn’t be labelled remotely good – but it’s so overwhelmingly lethargic, so lacking in the energy, enthusiasm and inventiveness that characterises these filmmakers at their best – and yes, I’m including Rodriguez, although it’s a very limited corner for him – that it’s very easy to banish the entire misbegotten enterprise from your mind.
The concept, such as it was, was to present a unity of independent spirit (the Sundance “Class of 92”), overseen by that bastion of the same – unless your movie “needed” cutting, that is – Miramax. Alexandre Rockwell, director of second sequence Room 404 – The Wrong Man, referred to a “New Wave feeling” among the filmmakers (including Richard Linklater, who must count himself lucky to have dropped out). It’s also Rockwell who must cop the blame for the premise, that of a bellhop getting into scrapes with different guests on New Year’s Eve.
Those involved opine that the picture became a different beast once it was snapped up by the mini-major, eager to have a chunk of whatever Tarantino was involved in; it was no longer a collaboration of equals, but of Quentin and whichever nobodies he brought along with him.
If the results seem scrappy, that’s a reflection of the making; Anders observed that the first draft was accepted as the final, while Rockwell noted that, on a wave of Pulp adulation, all approvals for everything had to go through Tarantino’s people. Miramax, unsurprisingly, acted like oafs, cutting the movie down, mainly at the expense of Anders and Rockwell’s segments. Harvey said “You know what the problem with this movie is? We’re working with two geniuses and two hacks”. Yeah, I know he really was including Rodriguez in the former category (Peter Biskind, in Down and Dirty Pictures, from which I’ve sourced most of these anecdotes, cogently summed him up as “a delayed adolescent”).
Miramax, as Anders saw it, were doing exactly the opposite of the exercise’s idealistic intent, pitting the filmmakers against each other in test screenings where audiences were asked which room they liked best. As such, while it may be a little uncharitable to say it, Anders’ and Rockwell’s are the inferior segments, which isn’t to suggest any of them are anything to write home about.
Honey Moon Suite – The Missing Ingredient
Anders’ room finds a coven of starry but otherwise unexceptional witches (Madonna, Alicia Witt, Sammi Davis, Lili Taylor, Ione Skye, Valerie Golino) intent on reversing a spell cast on goddess Diana (Amanda De Cadenet, bizarrely). Skye has to procure some semen, and with little spare time focuses on Ted the bellhop.
It’s worth emphasising straight off the bat that Tim Roth’s performance throughout is quite dreadful, the kind of frantic mugging that suggests he should never be let near a comedy script. For some reason, there seemed to be a lot of bellboys in movies around this time from Cinqué Lee in Mystery Train to Steve Buscemi’s Chet in Barton Fink and even Bronson Pinchot in Blame it on the Bellboy. It emphasises how bad Roth is when I say that even Pinchot is more watchable. If they’d wanted someone to gurn and put on a silly voice, they should have had just thrown caution to the wind and cast Lee Evans, the latter-day Jerry Lewis (it figures, however, that it was written with Buscemi in mind).
It’s difficult to critique this in any way, as it functions as an airless waft of nothingness. And presumably, since Anders had it cut from under her with a script she wasn’t happy with, she’d probably agree. At least Madonna doesn’t get a chance to be terrible, despite her Razzie recognition, because you’ll barely remember she was in it. Aside from bringing her own outfit.
Room 404 – The Wrong Man
Rockwell’s premise feels like it has more potential, at least, with Ted mistaken for a role-play participant in an uncomfortable “hostage” scenario, with a gagged-and-bound Jennifer Beals at the behest of her husband David Proval. It’s ultimately no less tiresome than the opener, though, and mostly notable for someone nearly vomiting over Ted from the room above as he attempts to escape through the bathroom window.
Room 309 – The Misbehavers
Rodriguez ropes in Antonio Banderas, as the latter and wife Tamlyn Tomita leave Ted in charge of their kids, who inevitably run amok when he leaves them unattended. Rodriguez undeniably injects some energy into his room. However, it’s expectedly as tonally shot – the kids discover a dead prostitute under the bed – as everything he does, as well as telegraphing his future capacity for kids’ movies no one wants to see (Spy Kids and their endless sequels). There’s also a weird coda with Kathy Griffin and Marisa Tomei where Ted wants to quit; I thought for a moment it might be the part of the next segment. Which is, of course…
Penthouse – The Man from Hollywood
Tarantino, as Anders pointed out, is basically offering an autobiographical piece. One in which he’s surrounded by sycophants (Paul Calderon, Bruce Willis, Beals pops up again). Plus, he gets to indulge his yen for being taken seriously as an actor. There’s a mention of a “tasty beverage”, and structurally, it can’t help but be more engaging than anything preceding: there are various requested ingredients for a task as yet unspecified, which turns out to be cutting off Calderon’s finger, which Ted duly does for a fee. Accordingly, it also includes the prerequisite Tarantino violence, however minimal that may be. It is however, as noted, a Tarantino acting showcase, and so can only be so engaging.
So what’s there to summarise about Four Rooms, other than its anecdotal failure (it cost $4m and made only a tad more than that)? And the trashing of vario’us filmmaker friendships? Biskind notes that anthology films rarely work, and he isn’t wrong. The portmanteau horrors of the ’60s and ’70s tend to be exceptions (although, even then, they’re hit and miss), and the Coens recently pulled off a western with something approaching aplomb.
Four Rooms ought to have worked, to the extent that its self-imposed limitations (one bellhop, one room) spurred creativity. Instead they seem to have clogged it up. Only Tarantino really gets the right idea of the twist element common to the form – that there should be a satisfying reveal or gag that justifies the indulgence – and that’s because he’s ripped of Roald Dahl’s The Man from the South (sorry Quentin, homaged it). And in his case, the indulgence is barely justified by his indulgent performance.