Four Rooms: Anthology of Indie Directors–Anders, Rockwell, Tarantino, Rodriguez

Toronto Film Festival, Sep 16, 1995–Four of America’s hottest indie directors, Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino get a one-of-a-kind opportunity to display their idiosyncratic talents–and grand follies–in Four Rooms, a disappointingly tedious anthology of four short films, set in separate rooms of a once-grand L.A. hotel. Tarantino’s cult status and Rodriguez’ recent popularity should help initial marketing of this eagerly-awaited curio item, but Miramax faces a tough challenge overcoming negative reviews and bad word-of-mouth in guiding this lugubrious extravaganza into the mainstream. However, as reputations of four helmers are quite established, pic is not likely to damage their careers in the long run.

Unlike their literary equivalent, screen anthologies are a problematic format, more characteristic of European than American productions. The last outing, which anthologized major American directors, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Francis Ford Coppola’s l989 New York Stories, was a B.O. disappointment and yielded only one good sequence (Scorsese’s “Life Lessons”).

All four indie directors have had major hits in the film fest circuit. The competition among their endeavors was set off in l992, when three of the quartet were represented in the dramatic series at Sundance, with Rockwell’s In the Soup winning grand prize; Rodriguez’ El Mariachi was shown later that year in Telluride and Toronto. Reportedly, it was Rockwell’s idea to set all four stories in same hotel on New Year’s Eve, with a new bellboy on the job.

In the first, rather pointless “Strange Brew,” a story about feminine mystery and power, Allison Anders aims to spoof and deconstruct female archetypes. A coven of witches checks into the honeymoon suite to resurrect their goddess, Diana (Amanda DeCadenet), an l950s entertainer-stripper. The group includes Athena (Valeria Golino), a gypsy-like high-priestess, the glamorous Elspeth (Madonna), who arrives with her g.f (Alicia Witt), a juvenile delinquent on probation, Raven (Lili Taylor and Jezebel (Sammi Davis). Each witch brings a body fluid (blood, sweat, tears) to the gathering except for novice Eva (Ione Skye), who accidentally swallowed her contribution–semen. Under threat, she’s commanded to bring the fluid to the ritual within an hour, with bellboy Ted (Tim Roth) as her “victim.”

Rockwell’s “Two Sides to a Plate,” arguably the weakest segment, begins with Ted innocently entering room 404 with a bucket of ice, only to find a man named Sigfried (David Proval) wielding a .357 magnum at his beautiful wife Angela (Jennifer Beals), who’s gagged and tied to a chair. With this supposedly heightened adventure, in which hubby tests marital love by accusing bellboy of having an affair with his wife, pic sinks to an almost irredeemable level of inconsequential trivia.

The movie gets a much needed energy injection in the third–and undoubtedly most entertaining–sequence, “The Misbehavers,” in which Rodriguez again shows his masterly, humorous control of the camera in a story of two kids, Sarah, 9, and Juancho, 6, who end up destroying their hotel room while their gangster dad (Antonio Banderas) and mom are having a night on the town. The mischievous devils manipulate Ted so that they can indulge in drinking champagne, smoking cigarettes, and watching the nudie channel; they even use a hypodermic needle for a game of darts on a painting.

In the closing chapter, “The Man from Hollywood,” Tarantino pays homage to the Master of Suspense. Chester Rush (Tarantino), the town’s newest comedy star, and his two buddies, Leo (Bruce Willis) and Norman (Paul Calderon) recreate “The Man from Rio” episode from the “Alfred Hitchcock Show,” in which Peter Lorre bets that Steve McQueen can’t light his cigarette lighter 10 times in a row–price of failure is his pinky finger. Bellboy Ted is unwittingly drawn into the fray when he delivers a chopping block, a hatchet, a roll of twine and three nails–and finds himself playing the hatchetman!

The most disappointing thing about this debacle is how pedestrian and unimaginative most of the text is. There’s nothing experimental–or offbeat–about the work, other than the novelty of superstar directors letting their fancy run, though neither wild nor fast enough. As a group, helmers prove more adept behind the camera than as writers; Anders and Rockwell’s segments are particularly meager. But even Tarantino’s notoriously edgy dialogue is missing here, a flaw exacerbated by the fact that he has charted the same turf before.

Regrettably, Anders fails to live up to her reputation as a feminist director who creates strong roles for women. Though her story is dominated by women, their roles are too narrowly contrived and not biting enough of the male world. You can forgive a director for misguiding Madonna, but not when it comes to a gifted thesp like Taylor or a sexy comedienne like Golino.

In a role that was conceived for–and would have been better played by–Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth does a cheap, inconsistent imitation of Jerry Lewis at his most neurotic; Lewis’ l960 The Bellboy seems to be the inspiration for his role. He’s the only character who appears in all the episodes, but given no clever lines to deliver, his work is all mannerisms, resulting in what might be Roth’s only weak performance in an otherwise brilliant career. Considering the cast’s size and caliber, it’s shockingly that there are no standout performances, including Bruce Willis who’s totally wasted in a long telephone monologue with his estranged wife.

The minor pleasures to be had here are detecting the different narrative strategies and visual styles employed by the quartet. Favoring mega close-ups and furious montage, Rodriguez’s segment has the fastest pacing and largest number of cuts. In contrast, combining cinematic and theatrical conventions, in another tribute to Hitchcock (possibly Rope), Tarantino’s elaborate mise-en-scene benefits from extremely long takes, which Andrzej Sekula’s astute camera records in a series of glorious pans within the single-set episode.

Animated credit sequence, a tribute of sorts to Frank Tashlin’s (and Pink Panther) campy, cartoonish comedies, is amusing, and each episode is well-shot and edited by consummate craftsmen. But the production’s sheen conflicts awkwardly with the thin material, making the movie’s lack of real wit and quirky playfulness all the more noticeable. Helmers should move into their next projects to put this embarrassment behind them as quickly as possible.

Credits

Four-Part Comedy Anthology in Color
A Miramax release of a Band Apart production. Produced by Lawrence Bender. Executive producers, Alexandre Rockwell, Quentin Tarantino. Co-producers, Paul Hellerman, Heidi Vogel, Scott Lambert. Music, Combustible Edison, Esquivel; production design, Gary Frutkoff; art direction, Mayne Schuyler; costume design, Susan Bertram, Mary Claire Hannan; sound (Dolby), Paivel Wdowck; casting, Russell Gray. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 16, l995. Running time: 102 min.

Cast

Ted, the bellboy…Tim Roth

Strange Brew

Written and directed by Allison Anders; camera, Rodrigo Garcia; editor, Margie Goodspeed

Athena…….Valeria Golino
Elspeth………….Madonna
Elspeth’s girl..Alicia Witt
Raven………..Lili Taylor
Eva……………Ione Skye
Jezebel………Sammi Davis
Diana……Amanda DeCadenet

Two Sides to a Plate

Written and directed by Alexandre Rockwell; camera, Phil Parmet; editor, Elena Maganini

Angela…Jennifer Beals
Sigfried…David Proval

The Misbehavers

Written, directed, edited by Robert Rodriguez; camera, Guillermo Navarro

Father….Antonio Banderas
Mother…….Tamlyn Tomita

The Man from Hollywood

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; camera, Andrzej Sekula; editor, Sally Menke

Chester Rush…Quentin Tarantino
Leo……………..Bruce Willis
Norman………….Paul Calderon
Margaret…………Marisa Tomei
Betty…………..Kathy Griffin