(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. Given that July sees the release of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, the ninth film from Quentin Tarantino, we’re exploring the filmography of one of 20th-century cinema’s most breathlessly referential directors. Read the rest of our Filmmaker of the Month coverage of Tarantino here.)
Anthology films are curious things. They are the very definition of a risk-reward imbalance. And otherwise good anthology film can be sunk by one bad segment. However, an otherwise bad anthology film? Short of the outlier piece being the second coming of Citizen Kane, a bad anthology cannot be saved by a strong segment. So, to be fair to Four Rooms, this was a movie that had the odds stacked against before a single frame was filmed.
Still, it carried the whiff of promise with it. First off, the setup was intriguing: four different tales, all unfolding on New Year’s Eve in the same hotel, all inspired by Roald Dahl’s “adult” short stories. That’s a good unifying structure and a great artist to adapt.
Then, add in the year was 1995. Each of the anthology’s four directors was coming off their respective surprise hits. Robert Rodriguez had demanded attention after his low budget delight El Mariachi and his bigger-budgeted sequel/reimagining Desperado had proven he could scale up without losing himself in the bargain. Allison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging put her on the map in 1992 with bushels of independent film awards to show it and her follow-up My Vida Loco additionally demonstrated she had an instinct of discovering talent. Even Alexandre Rockwell, arguably the least “name” of the bunch, had just won the Jury Prize for Drama three years earlier at Sundance. Finally, of course, there was Quentin Tarantino striding the world like a colossus post-Pulp Fiction.
Hot indie directors either perched on the edge of mainstream success or still swimming in it bringing a well-respected author who had proved especially good to adapt to the screen. If this isn’t a recipe for success, what is?
That sense of optimism carried through the credits, which depict Ted the Bellhop (Tim Roth) as an animated figure bedeviled by his hat, the hotel elevator, and the guests. All the while, the bouncy “Vertigogo” jauntily suggests that Ted losing his pants, falling down an elevator and more are nothing to be taken seriously.
Alas, the rest of the movie seems to take its cue from this last bit. As a result, each segment ends up feeling as light as a sheet of paper and just as substantial. Whether it is Ted dealing with a coven of witches (Sammi Davis, Valeria Golino, Madonna, Ione Skye, Lili Taylor, and Alicia Witt) who are attempting to resurrect their wronged “ancestor” Diana (Amanda De Cadenet) or a kinky couple (David Proval, Jennifer Beals) trying to rope him into their fun and/or kill him, we never actually feel nervous about his fate.
The tone does not do much to help Tim Roth’s performance. Roth, essentially, has been given two directions to take his character, neither of which mesh particularly well. On the one hand, he gives the bellhop an almost Charlie Chaplin silent film feel. The impish looks, the exaggerated shock takes, the way he bounces in place or struts behind his room service cart, it all serves to heighten that comparison.
On the other hand, he has lines. Every time he opens his mouth, he is forced to undermine the silent movie side of his character. In silent movie mode, he has a delightful quality to him. He is delightful whether he takes his tip from between Madonna’s character’s cleavage or confidently delivering ice to what he expects to be a New Year’s Eve frat party. When Ted speaks though, it’s nearly always in a most unpleasant whine. Roth is clearly giving the directors what they want, you just cannot help but wonder why exactly they wanted him to do that.
Each segment ends up feeling as light as a sheet of paper and just as substantial.
Another issue that one encounters when watching anthologies is the wildly divergent styles of each segment. Interestingly, Four Rooms largely dodges this bullet: even the section with the most stylistic flourishes — the coven-driven first installment “The Missing Ingredient”, directed by Allison Anders — feels a piece with everything that follows.
Still, after a while, one finds themselves disappointed in the sameness of it all. Certainly, there could have been a way for Anders to deliver her cartoon-infused tale of witches and Tarantino to deliver a decidedly Quentin take on bored Hollywood types (including an uncredited Bruce Willis) creating an artificial danger to keep themselves interesting and interested. Anders gets her witch story, sure, but Tarantino’s “The Man From Hollywood” only stands out as a QT effort because of his motormouthed central performance. The fact that it might be the best acting performance of his career — not the least of which can be owed to steering clear of the n-word for once — is hardly a substitute for losing his keen eye or typically spot-on needle drops.
Somehow, on paper, Four Rooms gets it all right. It is smartly cast, the made interesting choices on who to put behind the lens, they find a believable way to connect all the tales, and no one section feels like it belongs in a different film. In practice, however, the directors largely seemed stripped of their edge and flair, Roth ends up handcuffed by impossible-to-realize duality, and the whole exercise never manages to get your heart racing enough to make it worth the journey.