If you took 1978's California Suite, replaced screenwriter Neil Simon and director Herbert Ross with four of Hollywood's hottest young filmmaking guns, each writing and directing his or her own twenty-minute segment, and then coated the whole thing with a fizzy, retro Love, American Style vibe, the end result would be Four Rooms.
Rooms is to the traditional motion picture what a short story anthology is to a traditional novel. Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging), Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup), and Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) met in 1992 while screening their early works at the Sundance Film Festival. They became fast friends, and an offhand suggestion -- let's make a movie together -- turned into a reality when Tarantino (who also brought independent filmmaker and Sundance darling Robert Rodriguez of El Mariachi fame into the fold), found himself riding high on Pulp Fiction's wave of popularity and floated the idea by Miramax Studios honcho Harvey Weinstein.
Tarantino's segment is only one of the quartet that make up Four Rooms (not surprisingly, however, it's the most entertaining). The overall premise is simple: It's New Year's Eve in a funky-nouveau-trendy Hollywood hotel. The denizens of four separate rooms take turns giving twitchy English bellhop Ted (Tim Roth) a New Year's he will never forget. The evening begins with Ted's being recruited as a sperm donor for a coven of sexy witches, and ends with his playing enforcer for a very unusual bet. In between he finds himself embroiled in some twisted psychosexual play-acting, as well as baby-sitting the hellion offspring of a Latin gangster. Ted gets to have steamy sex in a cauldron, kiss another man, discover a hooker's decomposing corpse, and mutilate a fellow human being (with the man's blessing). And he absconds with a small fortune in tips for the trouble.
From the Pink Panther-like opening titles sequence to the final Hitchcockian twist, Four Rooms jauntily pads down a hallway of dark humor without peeking too long inside any one doorway. The audience never has time to develop sympathy for any of the characters, but neither does the enterprise get a chance to sag. The scenery keeps changing, with Roth's frazzled bellboy serving as the only link. This deposits a lot of weight on Roth's shoulders, and while the actor doesn't collapse under it, neither does he carry it gracefully. The gifted Englishman plays Ted as a caffeinated cross between Inspector Clouseau and Jerry Lewis after that pair has watched too many Chaplin films; at times Roth pulls it off, but at other times he seems to be doing a weak imitation of Michael Richards's Kramer character on Seinfeld.
Each of the four installments has its moments. Anders's The Missing Ingredient opens the festivities with five witches (including Ione Skye, Valeria Golino, and Madonna) gathering in the hotel's honeymoon suite to conjure up a long-departed sister. Each witch brings an offering: milk, sweat, tears, et cetera. But one of the enchantresses has failed to bring her assigned ingredient A a man's sperm. She has one hour in which to obtain some. Enter Ted. Missing Ingredient is the only segment directed by a woman, and, somewhat ironically, it features the anthology's only shot of bare female breasts. Even more remarkably, they do not belong to Madonna.
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Rockwell's kinky S&M tableaux The Wrong Man follows, as Ted delivers a bucket of ice to the wrong room and stumbles upon a gagged woman bound to a chair and her irate husband menacing her with a large black revolver. The hapless bellboy lurches from this scenario into The Misbehavers, Robert Rodriguez's warped tale of a preening Latin tough guy (Antonio Banderas lampooning his own image in ponytail and pencil-thin mustache) who slips Ted $500 to keep an eye on his kids while Banderas and the missus kick up their heels at a New Year's Eve party. Dad's parting words to his little angels? "Don' misbehave!" The only question is how long after he shuts the door behind him will it take for them to break his commandment. Ted immediately asserts his authority; the precocious kids waste no time in letting the bellhop know who's really in charge.
Tarantino closes the show with The Man from Hollywood. The director costars (with Bruce Willis) as a sleazy Hollywood producer who sweet-talks Ted into settling a bet inspired by Hitchcock's The Man from Rio. Who at Miramax (which has benefited handsomely from the profits and prestige Tarantino's films have garnered for the studio) is going to deny the lauded young filmmaker the right to indulge himself a little? Tarantino has big fun playing boozy, motor-mouthed Hollywood sharpie Chester Rush, who screams lines such as "Champagne?! This isn't champagne. It's fucking Cris-tal! Everything else is just piss!" A little of Tarantino the actor goes a long way with me (case in point: Destiny Turns On the Radio), and his appearance here edges right up to that limit but never crosses it, which helps make his stanza the film's most memorable.
All in all the film is funny, hip, and never boring. It is also glib and full of itself, and would have been radically improved by the inclusion of a single genuinely sympathetic character. Still, there are worse ways to pass an hour and a half than by checking into these Four Rooms.
Written and directed by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino; with Tim Roth, Bruce Willis, Quentin Tarantino, Antonio Banderas, Valeria Golino, Ione Skye, and Madonna.