Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (1995) Part Two

4. Four Rooms

“Four Rooms” is a movie that's almost never talked about except in the context of its directors' career. Which is sort of weird, when you think about it. It was the first thing Quentin Tarantino did after “Pulp Fiction,” one of the most influential and critically beloved American films of the nineties. And while “Desperado” wasn't as big a deal, I'm sure Robert Rodriguez' next project was also hotly anticipated. The film was released on Christmas Day in 1995, suggesting it was meant to be an awards contender. This was not to be, as critics dismissed the film and audience didn't turn out. “Four Rooms” is now only discussed when people do retrospectives for Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. That's why I reviewed it once before and why I'm reviewing it again now. That last review mostly discussed Tarantino's segment but I'll be talking about the whole movie here.

Maybe this movie should be discussed, if for no other reason than it sums up the decade it came out in fairly well. “Four Rooms” is, quite possibly, the most nineties movie ever made. The anthology feature would throw together a bunch of directors who had risen out of the independent scene, encapsulating the nineties' Sundance obsession. As a sarcastic comedy, it fit right in with the detached, cynical Generation X decade.  The film features an animated opening credits sequence, similar to some other nineties comedies. The lounge music score, in ways I can't quite articulate, also speaks to the decade of my youth. While there's no references to Clinton or grunge, “Four Rooms” still feels like the hubris of every nineties Hollywood producer made flesh.

An collection of four stories, “Four Rooms” is set at the Mon Signor, a Hollywood hotel that has seen better days. Linking the tales is Ted the bellboy, on his first night on the job, who has a bizarre adventure in each room he visits. Though the part was originally intended for Steve Buscemi, Ted would instead by played by Tim Roth. No matter the wildly divergent quality of “Four Rooms” over all, Tim Roth's frantic performance is a highlight of the entire movie. Roth plays Ted as an aggressively wacky character, not so much mugging as acting with every fiber of his being. The crazy situations push Ted to the edge, giving Roth a chance to gloriously overact in the most manically comedic fashion possible. Most of the film's laughs come from his baffled, irritated reactions to the crazy shit he sees.

Our opening segment is “The Missing Ingredient.” It follows a coven of witches taking up residence in the Honeymoon Suite. Though the women's style varies, they are united in their goal. They have gathered together all the ingredients necessary in order to resurrect the goddess at the center of their coven, who was turned to stone decades before. That's when one of the witches, Eva, reveals that she swallowed the last ingredient: Semen. It's then decided that she'll seduce Ted, solving their problem.

“The Missing Ingredient” was directed by Allison Anders. Anders had made a splash with “Gas Food Lodging” but her subsequent efforts failed to excite people. She's most recently been seen directing for Lifetime and Hallmark. This is one of Anders' films I've seen and, I suspect, not a good representation of her talent. Because “The Missing Ingredient” is awful. Its sex jokes are extremely awkward, the film seeming uncomfortable with them. The random insertion of big special effects – a witch breathing fire, hypnotizing eye beams – is hugely misguided. The performances, including appearances from Madonna and Alicia Witt, are joylessly hammy. The script seems to think dirty limericks about blow jobs are the peak of humor. It really gets the movie off on a bad note.

Our second segment, “The Wrong Man,” has Ted being called up to Room 404. There, he meets a married couple who are going through some serious shit. Husband Sigfried has tied up his wife, Angela. Once Ted is invited into the film, Sigfried begins to accuse him of being the man Angela is cheating on him with. This misunderstanding only grows, Ted fearing more and more for his life. It's from director Alexander Rockwell, the least well known of the four directors. Rockwell's previous indies, “In the Soup” and “Hero,” won some awards. “Four Rooms,” which was apparently his idea, remains his most well known work.

“The Wrong Man” is a little better than “The Missing Ingredient.” But only barely. The central premise is going for madcap comedy, as Ted suspects Sigfried is either totally insane or he's stumbled into an elaborate sexual role play. Yet there's far too much uncomfortable tension in the air for the audience to laugh. David Proval is too disturbingly unhinged as Sigfried. Ted seems genuinely endangered. In-between the casual bondage Angela – played by Jennifer Beals, Rockwell's wife – undergoes and the abusive language Sigfried throws at her, there's a feeling of sexual menace to the segment. Yet there's one funny segment where Ted attempts to escape through a small bathroom window. He get stuck and nearly gets puked on by a guy from the next floor up. Rockwell shoots it at a horizontal angle, which is sort of fun.

Our third segment, “The Misbehavers,” is from Robert Rodriguez. A married couple decide to leave their two kids, Sarah and Juancho, while they go out for a night on the town. Ted is paid extra to babysit the kids, a task he reluctantly agrees to. Sarah and Junacho are serious trouble makers. They drink wine and vandalize the room. Ted's patience grows short after being repeatedly called up to the room. Yet the kids uncover more disturbing secrets hiding around the suite.

“Four Rooms” has been attempting a wacky, madcap tone throughout its entire run time. With its third segment, it finally begins to capture that feeling. Yes, “The Misbehavers” is still weirdly mean-spirited. There's a dead prostitute in the segment, which the film treats very frivolously. A child being punched in the face – twice! – is treated like a gag. Despite that, the sequence actually did get a couple of laughs out of me. The unlikely way the situation escalates is mildly amusing. We begin with some bratty kids. We end with the room set on fire, just about every type of contraband spread around possible. Most hilariously, the father's reaction – played by a steely Antonio Banderas - is totally deadpan.

Taken in the context of Rodriguez' whole career, “The Misbehavers” is somewhat significant too. Within the segment, the kids watch Rodriguez' early short film, “Bedhead.” That short was about feuding siblings. “The Misbehavers” also predates “Spy Kids” and the director's other kids movies. While full of profanity and adult content, “The Misbehavers” does show Rodriguez' interests in kids' perspective of the world. The strict Sarah and the bratty Juancho seem like rough prototypes for Carmen and Juni. Some of the gross-out humor here, involving sniffing toes, also seems similar to some of the “Spy Kids” gags. For a further connection, Salma Hayak has a gratuitously sexy cameo.

The last part in “Four Rooms,” “The Man from Hollywood,” is generally regarded as its best segment. (Or only good one, depending on how you look at it.) Ted is invited up to the penthouse suite. That's where big-shot Hollywood director Chester Rush and some of his high profile friends are hanging out. Drunk on both wine and success, Rush and his pals have a crazy idea. They want to recreate the central gamble from “The Man from Rio,” an old “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episode. That involves a bet where someone can light a cigarette lighter six times in a row or else get his pinkie chopped off. Ted is recruited to wield the hatchet, something he only agrees to do after being paid a large sum.

The moment Tarantino takes over “Four Rooms” is readily apparent. Suddenly, there's an extra lilt and wit to the comedic moments. The characters become hyper-verbal, delivering fast-paced monologues at each other. Pop culture references, to everything from Jerry Lewis to the Who to the NES “Rambo” game, fly fast and loose. More than anything else, Tarantino puts his visual stamp on the materiel. “The Man from Hollywood” is largely shot in a series of long takes. Point-of-view shots are employed as Ted enters the penthouse. We focus on faces as people talk. The camera movement and editing is so steady that when faster beats come, as in the ending, the audience really notices.

“The Man from Hollywood” isn't just the highlight of “Four Rooms” because Tarantino's style is so strong. It's genuinely the funniest segment in the film. Granted, the weird mean-spirited tone that carries throughout the whole movie is still there. Bruce Willis screams horrible things at his wife over the phone. Tarantino plays Chester, who angrily rants about Christal. The name of his successful film is called “The Wacky Detective,” which seems like a really bad fake title. Yet that trademark Tarantino dialogue goes a long way. Say what you will about the guy's acting but he's entertaining to watch. The monologue he delivers to Tim Roth near the film's end is a classic. In other words, “The Man from Hollywood” has a wit and energy that the rest of “Four Rooms” struggles to achieve.

For years, I've said that you should watch “The Man from Hollywood” and skip the rest of “Four Rooms.” This is still basically true but I'll modify that statement slightly. If you're a big Robert Rodriguez fan, his segment does provide some moments of interest. Still feel free to skip the first half of the movie. Even with that caveat, “Four Rooms” is really only for completest fans of its directors. The good parts are not so good that the whole movie is worth watching. “Four Rooms” is a trifle at best and an agonizing misfire at worst. [Grade: C]

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