Some movies are hard to find for a reason. Prior to its addition to the Netflix library, the anthology film Four Rooms was a curiosity, the second-most-elusive part of Quentin Tarantino’s filmography.* After you see it, however, you realize that it had been obscured for a very good reason. Not only is this the biggest failure of Tarantino’s career, but he takes three other filmmakers down with him.
Tim Roth plays Ted the Bellhop at a small Los Angeles hotel on New Year’s Eve. The film is composed of four short stories of odd things that happen to Ted over the course of that night. Ted is the only constant in all four stories, which is a shame because this is without question the worst performance of Roth’s career. He was apparently given the note “More uptight!” so many times that whatever he was aiming for was lost in a mess of nervous tics and high-pitched uptight-voice.
At the time Four Rooms was being filmed, Pulp Fiction hadn’t even exploded yet, but it was already well-known among film buffs, as was Robert Rodriguez’s micro-budget action hit El Mariachi. Thus, this film was a chance for Tarantino and Rodriguez to bring a pair of indie filmmakers with them to the big time: people who were accomplished, but hadn’t yet hit it big (in fact the movie was initially to be called Five Rooms and contain a story from Richard Linklater). The problem was, they picked two weaker filmmakers to make the trip: Alison Anders and Alexandre Rockwell.
Anders was just coming off of the well-received girl-gang picture Mi Vida Loca, and she gives us a piece about a coven of witches who need a favor from Ted in order to complete their spell. Although the coven itself has an interesting cast – Madonna in her prime, among others – this piece suffers from the worst Roth acting of the four films. The presence of aggressive sexuality in the same room reduces Ted to a quivering, twitching mass of jelly, and Ione Skye (Say Anything) as the witch who interacts with him is just entirely too flat.
Worst of all, each of the first two segments have terrible endings. Both Anders’ film and the strange psycho-sexual game behind Rockwell’s second segment don’t end, as much as they run out of steam. At the time of filming, Rockwell seems to have been most famous for being married to Jennifer Beals (Flashdance), who is in this segment but goes badly to waste behind a mouth gag. Instead we have Ted being screamed at by her husband Siegfried, played by a wildly hammy David Proval, until he contrives a way to escape. Rather like a Saturday Night Live sketch, it’s a perfectly good concept that is not carried to any satisfying conclusion.
Rodriguez’s segment is the highlight of the movie, as Ted is assigned to babysit two precocious children by father Antonio Banderas. Banderas is hilarious, playing his role in the way that Roth should have played Ted: big and hammy but always in control of the scene. The kids are also great, at least by the standards of child actors, and this being an R-rated film means their hijinks can push the envelope of what Hollywood would allow. Having said that, Roth is still doing bad work as Ted, and the story feels like a lightweight first draft of Spy Kids.
Finally, there is Tarantino’s segment, “The Man From Hollywood.” It’s a loose adaptation of a classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents story, and much like Tarantino’s later film Death Proof, it is all buildup to a relatively brief punch line. Thanks to the lengthy buildup, that punch line is very, very funny, but it doesn’t make this a good segment. The problem is that the titular man from Hollywood is played by Tarantino himself, and if you thought he was a bad actor as Jimmie in Pulp Fiction, you haven’t seen anything yet. At the end of the film you will laugh partly because it’s funny, and partly out of relief that you’re done with his character forever.
Paul Calderon, Beals again, and an uncredited Bruce Willis are all in this segment, but Tarantino saves almost all of the dialogue in the sequence for himself. He’s playing a parody of a Hollywood power-crazed hipster – a knowing self-parody, basically – but he just doesn’t have the chops to pull it off. If there is any one thing that Four Rooms did correctly, it was to annihilate the belief that Tarantino could get away with casting himself in his own films.
Four Rooms is like Danny Boyle’s A Life Less Ordinary or Steven Spielberg’s 1941: with some rising superstars in front of and behind the camera, surely it looked like a can’t-miss on paper, but was buried in execution because its directors were trying too hard to replicate past successes. The best thing that can be said about it is that it taught good lessons to all involved: Anders is now a veteran TV director, and Rodriguez and Tarantino soon delivered what I believe to be their best films: Desperado and Jackie Brown, respectively. See those movies. Don’t see Four Rooms.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*According to lore, Reservoir Dogs was Tarantino’s third feature, not his first. That’s sort-of true; in reality, IMDb says his pre-Dogs career was limited to an unfinished film called Love Birds in Bondage and a short film called My Best Friend’s Birthday.