Alexandre Rockwell, who came up with the idea for the anthology comedy "Four Rooms," says of the characters in his segment, "They are walking the line, and when you walk the line, sometimes you fall into hell and sometimes you trip into heaven."
Moviegoers run the same risk every time they plunk down the price of a ticket, and those who do so for this film will soon feel the heat of Satan's breath.
It's not enough to say that "Four Rooms" is a bad movie. It's four bad movies rolled into one, the sum being even worse than the parts. It's an embarrassment for its quartet of respected independent filmmakers, and an object lesson for investors suffering Sundance Syndrome, that bandwagon urge to throw money after talent unveiled at festivals.
It was on the film festival circuit where Rockwell ("In the Soup") and his collaborators Quentin Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs"), Allison Anders ("Gas Food Lodging") and Robert Rodriguez ("El Mariachi") got to know one another, and it's no surprise they all went for his idea, which was for each to write and direct a segment about a nervous bellhop manning a run-down Los Angeles hotel by himself on New Year's Eve.
The surprise comes in the quality of the work they turned in.
After a credit sequence that is a reasonably wacky knock-off of those done for the "Pink Panther" series, "Four Rooms" introduces the bellboy Ted (Tim Roth), who is left alone as the hotel--a chintzy version of the purgatory setting of "Barton Fink"--fills up with weirdos, and endures a nightmarish string of adventures in four of his guests' rooms.
In Anders' opening episode, "The Missing Ingredient," Ted delivers room service to a coven of witches--Madonna, Valeria Golino, Sammi Davis and Ione Skye among them--and sticks around to donate sperm for an annual body fluids ritual. In Rockwell's "The Wrong Man," he walks in on a couple (David Proval, Jennifer Beals) enacting a dangerous game of bondage and is mistaken by the gun-toting husband for his bound and gagged wife's lover. In Rodriguez's "The Misbehavers," Ted is asked to look in on a pair of kids watching television while a corpse rots in the mattress beneath them. And in Tarantino's "The Man From Hollywood," the bellboy is offered $1,000 by three drunks (Tarantino, Bruce Willis and Paul Calderon) to wield the hatchet in a reenactment of an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."
Sounds better than it is.
Rodriguez's story is by far the best, something like a C-minus to the others' Fs. For one thing, it has Antonio Banderas, in the film's only restrained performance, playing a menacing Latino who offers Ted a $500 baby-sitting fee so he and his wife can go out on the town. For another, Ted isn't in it that much; it's mostly about the two kids playing "Home Alone," drinking champagne, smoking, playing darts with a syringe and blaming the corpse's odor on each other's feet.
We can only wonder what was on Tim Roth's mind when he got a fix on his character. It's as if he's doing an impression of Jim Carrey doing an impression of Jerry Lewis in "The Bellboy." Whatever you think of Carrey and Lewis, Roth's physical comedy skills are dwarfed by their genius. It is a gutsy performance, a blur of facial tics and weaselly stammers, but we've slept in hotel rooms that are funnier.
It is either ironic or fitting that Rockwell's episode is the most pointless. "Four Rooms" has been cut by 26 minutes since its ridiculed premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. They might have been wiser to simply jettison this entire segment.
Anders' "The Missing Ingredient" is an aimless mess, with the witches wandering around moaning, a couple of them decorously topless, as they try to call up the spirit of their goddess, a '50s stripper named Diana, from the bridal suite's whirlpool bath.
But it is Tarantino's contribution that is the most disappointing. The least we'd expect from the creator of "Reservoir Dogs," "True Romance" and "Pulp Fiction" is some brittle dialogue and an engaging character or two. There's nothing of the sort here.
Tarantino, still fancying himself an actor, is "The Man From Hollywood," a drunken spendthrift determined to reenact the "Alfred Hitchcock" episode where Peter Lorre gets Steve McQueen to bet his little finger that he can get his cigarette lighter to work 10 straight times. It's a shaggy-dog story, again with no point, unless you want to bet how many times Tarantino can scream the F-word in 10 minutes.
You may feel like screaming it a few times yourself as you walk out of the theater, but at least you'll have a good reason.
* MPAA rating: R, for pervasive strong language, sexuality, some drug use. Times guidelines: The profanity, absent humor or purpose, is deafening.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Tim Roth: Ted
Valeria Golino: Athena
Ione Skye: Eve
Quentin Tarantino: Chester
Bruce Willis: Leo
Jennifer Beals: Angela
Antonio Banderas: Father
A Band Apart production, released by Miramax Films. Producer Lawrence Bender. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez. Cinematographers Rodrigo Garcia ("The Missing Ingredient"), Phil Parnet ("The Wrong Man"), Andrzej Sekula ("The Man From Hollywood"), Guillermo Navarro ("The Misbehavers"). Edited by Margie Goodspeed ("The Missing Ingredient"), Elena Maganini ("The Wrong Man"), Robert Rodriguez ("The Misbehavers"), Sally Menke ("The Man From Hollywood"). Music by Combustible Edison. Costumes Susan Bertram, Mary Claire Hannan. Production design by Gary Frutkoff. Art direction by Mayne Schuyler. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.