Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Films of Quentin Tarantino: Four Rooms (1995)

Four Rooms (1995) 

Directed by: Allison Anders (The Missing Ingredient), Alexandre Rockwell (The Wrong Man), Robert Rodriguez (The Misbehavers), Quentin Tarantino (The Man from Hollywood). 

Written by: Allison Anders (The Missing Ingredient), Alexandre Rockwell (The Wrong Man), Robert Rodriguez (The Misbehavers), Quentin Tarantino (The Man from Hollywood).

Starring: Tim Roth (Ted the Bellhop), Valeria Golino (Athenaq), Madonna (Elspeth), Alicia Witt (Kiva), Sammi Davis (Jezebel), Lili Taylor (Raven), Ione Skye (Eva), Amanda de Cadenet (Diana), David Proval (Siegfried), Jennifer Beals (Angela), Lawrence Bender (Long Hair Yuppie Scum), Paul Skemp (Real Theodore), Antonio Banderas (Husband), Tamlyn Tomita (Wife), Lana McKissack (Sarah), Danny Verduzco (Juancho), Patricia Vonne (Corpse), Salma Hayek (TV Dancing Girl), Kathy Griffin (Betty), Marisa Tomei (Margaret), Julie McClean (Left Redhead), Laura Rush (Right Redhead), Quentin Tarantino (Chester Rush), Jennifer Beals (Angela), Paul Calderón (Norman), Bruce Willis (Leo).


The year was 1995, and Quentin Tarantino was the hottest director in Hollywood, coming off the massive success of Pulp Fiction, and he was also a celebrity – something rare for directors. Everyone wanted to see what Tarantino was going to do next. What Tarantino seemed to want to do was act. This was the year of his starring role in the all but forgotten Destiny Turns on the Radio. And it was the year of Four Rooms – in which Tarantino teamed up with three of his friends, all indie darlings, to make the anthology film Four Rooms. The idea was simple – each director would tell a story, set in a Hollywood hotel room on New Year’s Eve – the connective tissue would be Ted the Bellhop (Tim Roth) – the only employee working that night – who would undergo a series of comic misadventures. The four directors were all coming off of indie successes in 1992– Allison Anders had Gas Food Lodging, Alexandre Rockwell had In the Soup, Robert Rodriguez had El Mariachi and Tarantino, of course, had Reservoir Dogs. They assembled an amazing ensemble cast. What could possibly go wrong?


Well, everything it turns out. Four Rooms is not mentioned a lot these days – and there is a reason. It was a critical and commercial failure, and while nothing would give me more pleasure than to say that its actually an underrated masterpiece, the simple truth is that it isn’t. It’s a bad film. The first two segments don’t really work at all, the third segment is actually pretty good, and the fourth segment (Tarantino’s) feels like something the talented filmmaker threw together at the last minute. I will be shocked if Four Rooms doesn’t remain the worst film Tarantino ever had a hand in directing.


Tim Roth is a fine actor – he has been great in everything else Tarantino has cast him in, and to be fair, I don’t really think it’s his fault that Four Rooms is so bad. This is a broad comedic performance where Roth seems to be trying to channel Jerry Lewis at times, Peter Sellers at others, but basically it amounts to a lot of mugging for the camera, and silly walks. He only really gets going in Rodriguez’s segment – the best in the film – and in part it’s because you see what the performance could have been had the other directors allowed more Tim Roth to come through in his performance. It’s still a broadly comic turn in that segment – but it’s one where you can see the real Roth coming through. He gives it his all though from start to finish – you have to give him that.


The real reason the film doesn’t work, is that three of the four directors seem to basically be phoning it in a little – that they are working in a genre that they don’t quite understand, and haven’t figured out. And perhaps because they only have to make one quarter of a 98-minute film, they basically make one joke shorts, but the jokes are bad, and they still run out of steam, even before they begin.


The first segment, by Alison Anders, may be the worst. In it, a Coven of witches are gathering in the Honeymoon Suite – which has a cauldron in the middle of the floor for some reason - apparently so they can revive one of their own – a witch turns into stone 40 years ago in this very hotel room. Each of the large group of witches – playing by Madonna, Valeria Golina, Alicia Witt, Lili Taylor, Amanda de Cadenet and Ione Skye – were supposed to bring a single ingredient from the position, but Ione Skye messed up bringing the semen (the single best part of this segment is their initial rhyming chant as they cast their spell, which ends with Skye’s hilarious confession to what happened). So they need semen fast – and of course, Ted the Bellhop is right there. I think a big part of the problem here is that this is a short with way too many characters – you probably won’t even remember all their names by the time the segment is over, and apart from Taylor (who I found very amusing in her few line readings) and Skye – who I think is quite funny – the rest of the actresses don’t really do very much, or imbue their characters with anything. Skye and Roth really do seem to be giving it their all, but it’s a comedy that doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and doesn’t have much of a point.


The same could be said for Alexandre Rockwell’s segment which comes next – in which Ted is called to the room 404 by a drunken idiot (producer Lawrence Bender, once again playing Long Haired Yuppie Scum) who gets the room wrong. What he walks into instead of Jennifer Beals tied to a chair, and her husband (David Proval) waving a big gun around accusing her of infidelity – with Ted the Bellhop of course, because he’s there. Because Beals spends the first half bound and gagged, much of the segment is a lot of Proval being threatening and Roth stammering out his innocence. Proval, as an actor, can be very threatening – but here, he doesn’t find the right note – he goes too big, and he isn’t scary at all. There is a nice shot of Roth as he tries to escape through a bathroom window – but other than that, this is a one joke segment about this strange psycho-sexual game this couple is playing – and it’s not really funny.


The one segment that actually works quite well is Robert Rodriguez’s. Antonio Banderas gives the best performance in the movie by a mile, as a Mexican tough guy who leaves Ted in charge of his two kids as he and his wife go to a New Year’s party. The kids basically keep themselves into more and more trouble, and Ted becomes increasingly flustered in trying to deal with them – all leading to the hilarious finale, which involves fire, pornography, a hypodermic needle and a corpse. Rodriguez is the only director here who actually builds and builds and builds the comic momentum. He’s also the only one who really allows Roth to play a real character – Roth on the phone at the end is clearly his best moment in the film. Rodriguez works wonders here – and it’s downright hilarious, all the more so given everything around it. While the rest of the directors would probably like to forget Four Rooms, this actually ranks as one of the best things Rodriguez has ever directed.


Then we get to Tarantino’s segment, where director himself plays a Hollywood star, having himself a drunken New Year’s with a couple of friends (Paul Calderon and Bruce Willis) – and have been joined by Jennifer Beals from the second segment. They decided they wanted to recreate an old Alfred Hitchcock episode – where Steve McQueen bets Peter Lorre that he can light his cigarette lighter 10 times in a row – if he does, he’ll get Lorre’s car. If he doesn’t, Lorre gets to cut off his pinky finger. But everyone is drunk, so they want Ted to the be the hatchet man as it were. The best decision Tarantino makes is to satirize himself – making himself the big headed, preening star. Tarantino is not a great actor – but he’s an okay one, and playing an exaggerated version of himself, he’s pretty good. And yet, everything about this segment feels more like someone trying to ape Tarantino than Tarantino himself. The dialogue is just not quite to the level of Tarantino’s other films – and when that happens, the dialogue rings false more often. The direction isn’t great either – okay, the final moments are great – but for the most part, this feels like something Tarantino did on the fly. It’s better than the first two segments – but it’s still very weak by Tarantino standards.

I have never quite figured out why anthology films like this very rarely work. The idea seems simple – get together a group of talented directors, and let them play on a theme. But at best, these movies end up giving us one good segment, and a forgettable rest. And that’s a shame, because the best of these deserve to be seen, but the worst usually make people less interested in the whole. New York Stories has a great Scorsese movie, a horrible Francis Ford Coppola movie, and a forgettable Woody Allen film – and as a result, how many people have ever seen the great Scorsese segment. The same is true here – the Rodriguez movie is wonderful – and the rest, not so much.

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