Four Rooms

It must have seemed like a great idea: Take four of today’s hippest and/or hottest writer-directors and turn them loose on an anthology — Twilight Zone: The Movie for Gen-X. The result, Four Rooms, earns the comparison in more ways than one. The episodes themselves are like wilder, dirtier Twilight Zone segments — a fusion of Rod Serling and David Lynch (who did a similar omnibus, Hotel Room, for HBO) — and one of them is in fact an acknowledged swipe from the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “The Man from Rio.” And Four Rooms, like TZ: The Movie, is ideal for video: Both anthologies begin with two awful segments, which you’ll want to fast-forward past to get to the third and fourth segments. Like some other anthologies, this one has a unifying figure: Tim Roth as Ted the bellhop, who finds himself stumbling into one outrageous situation after another. But even Roth isn’t a very good unifying element, because he’s awful in the awful segments — the directors let him twitch and overact shamelessly — and much better in the other two pieces, where the directors keep a lid on him.

Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging, Mi Vida Loca) takes the blame for the first segment, “The Missing Ingredient.” I’d rather not sink to the level of the piece and say that the missing ingredient here is humor. Actually, Anders’ idea isn’t bad — a coven of witches need semen for their ritual and enlist Ted to provide it — so I was shocked that she didn’t do anything with it. The story has extremely shaky logic (has this hotel room been set up for the witches for the last forty years?) and even less point, except to showcase Madonna, who proves once again that she has no presence as an actress (Courtney Love might have brought more outlaw snap to the role of the coven mother). A classic case of a good filmmaker having a bad day.

“The Wrong Man,” by Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup), probably won’t do much to change Rockwell’s status as a little-known director. Here, Ted enters the wrong room and stumbles upon weird sexual games between a man (David Proval) and his wife (Jennifer Beals, who was Mrs. Rockwell). It’s good to see Proval again — he hasn’t been around much since Mean Streets — and there are a couple of nice visual gags involving Ted stuck in a window. But generally the piece is monotonous and unpleasant, and when Beals rattled off a list of nicknames for Ted’s penis, I laughed but was ashamed of laughing; it’s a pure sign of screenwriting desperation (and our desperation to laugh at something).

Fortunately, Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi) swoops in and almost erases our memory of the first two misfires. “The Misbehavers” is easily the best of the four rooms; Rodriguez’s infectious sense of play catches you up immediately. In this one, Ted is pretty much intimidated into babysitting the two active children of an imposing bruiser (Antonio Banderas). Playing this cartoon heavy, Banderas at last recaptures the wit he showed in Pedro Almodovar’s films but had forgotten in his American movies until now. The segment itself builds to an uproarious finish, made all the more effective because the audience at this point doesn’t expect anything funny. It’s a beautifully shaped comedy short, establishing Rodriguez as a director who can move beyond bang-bang.

The final entry, “The Man from Hollywood,” is by Quentin Tarantino, and Quentin Tarantino makes damn sure we know it’s by Quentin Tarantino. No more acting attempts, please. Quentin plays an obnoxious movie star who pulls Ted into a wager based on (you guessed it) “The Man from Rio”; in other words, Quentin basically plays himself. To say he’s better here than he was on Saturday Night Live isn’t saying much. The piece is redeemed by Tarantino’s usual crackling dialogue, but it dawdles far too long before its “shock” ending. Some of the dawdling is amusing, some isn’t. Rodriguez’s piece is a hard act to follow anyway. Tarantino’s name may have been the key to getting Four Rooms to open, but only one guest in this hotel throws a good party — and it isn’t the man from Hollywood.

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