After the release of Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino was the hottest man in Hollywood. Everyone wanted to collaborate with him in one way or another, and Tarantino seemed all too happy to oblige. In the three years or so that followed the release of that film, Tarantino acted in a dozen different films and TV shows, directed an episode of ER, wrote a screenplay for a Robert Rodriguez, hosted Saturday Night Live, provided voiceover work for a video game and starred in a music video. The project that best summarizes this chapter of Tarantino's career is Four Rooms, an anthology film featuring segments directed by Tarantino (who also co-produces, co-stars and co-writes) and three of his pals. Disappointingly, the movie often feels closer in spirit to a lot of third-rate Tarantino imitations than it does to the rest of Tarantino's filmography.
The entire film takes place within the confines of a single hotel, and specifically centers on the assorted misadventures of a hapless rookie bellhop named Ted (Tim Roth, Reservoir Dogs). Roth's performance alters from segment to segment, as each director had different ideas about how the character should be played (even his accent changes at one point). It's a fascinating examination of what a big impact a director can have on a performance, as Roth's work can accurately be described as awkward, hilarious or forgettable depending on which segment you're watching.
The first – and worst – of the segments is Allison Anders' “The Missing Ingredient,” which tells the story of a group of witches attempting to resurrect a member of their coven. It's hard to believe that the filmmakers felt it was a good idea to open with this piece, as it mostly plays like a tedious half-hour installment of a '90s Cinemax show. Madonna (Swept Away), Ione Skye (Say Anything...), Lili Taylor (Six Feet Under), Alicia Witt (Twin Peaks), Valeria Golina (Rain Man) and Sammi Davis (Mona Lisa) play the witches, but they're given nothing to do other than cavort around naked (or half-naked) and bat their eyes at Roth (it seems they desperately need his semen for their resurrection potion – no, really). The sequence is both dull and unfunny (Roth mugs for the camera to incredibly irritating effect), and it's easy to imagine many viewers stumbling across the film for the first time giving up after a few minutes.
Disappointingly, the second sequence isn't much better. In Alexandre Rockwell's “The Wrong Man,” Ted stumbles into a violent confrontation between an angry husband (David Proval, The Sopranos) and his adulterous wife (Jennifer Beals, Flashdance). It's here that the film feels most like a sub-Tarantino imitation (yet another reminder that profanity and violence are not what make Tarantino movies unique), and it's easily the most forgettable installment of the bunch.
Thankfully, things turn around at the halfway point with the arrival of Robert Rodriguez's terrific “The Misbehavers.” The setup is simple: a married couple (Antonio Banderas, Desperado and Tamlyn Tomita, The Joy-Luck Club) are going out for the evening, and ask Ted to keep an eye on their kids until they get back. Naturally, the kids quickly find a variety of ways to get into trouble, and Rodriguez helms the escalating chaos with the comic precision of a screwball master. It's an increasingly hilarious sequence that builds to a killer punchline, and it benefits considerably from Banderas' self-parodying machismo and Roth's perfectly-modulated building frustration. It's a snapshot of Rodriguez in full command of his craft – where did that guy go? I miss the scrappy young director who still felt he had something to prove.
Tarantino supplies the final segment, “The Man From Hollywood.” This stretch of the movie feels both self-indulgent and half-hearted, but Tarantino's raw talent is considerable enough to make the segment stand head and shoulders above the first two. Tarantino himself plays the central role of Chester Rush, a hotshot director enjoying a small party with a few friends (including an actor played by an unbilled Bruce Willis). Chester gets a crazy, dangerous idea from an old episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and persuades a hesitant Roth to get involved in the proceedings. The dialogue is as flavorful as usual for Tarantino (complete with a unprompted monologue about the greatness of Jerry Lewis), but his direction seems atypically sloppy. Like the Rodriguez segment, the whole thing ends with a perfect punchline, but Tarantino doesn't build to his closing laugh quite as skillfully as Rodriguez does.
Despite the fact that all four segments of Four Rooms overlap in some way (for instance, the Beals character from Rockwell's segment plays a key role in Tarantino's segment), the advisable way to view the film would be to skip ahead to the Rodriguez and Tarantino segments and imagine the whole affair as an hour-long warm-up for From Dusk Till Dawn and Grindhouse. Alas, if you're anything like me, you'll just watch the whole thing... because that's how it's supposed to be done. Like Ted the Bellhop (and Tim Roth the Actor), devoted movie buffs do what they feel obliged to do regardless of whether it's a good use of their time.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Year: 1995