B y S t a c e y R i c h t e r
IT WAS BAD, and I knew it would be bad. I knew it because I've never seen one of those anthology movies, those three-or-four-stories-within-a-story-films, that had anything more than the faint odor of being good. To confirm this conclusion, I scoured my brain to produce this incomplete and deeply flawed list:
First, there's the film in question, Four Rooms, four (can you believe it?) short films by hot, young directors, all set in the same hotel on New Year's Eve and threaded together by the character of The Bellboy (Tim Roth), who shows up in each. Then there's last year's Erotique, a mildly pornographic compendium of sweaty, naked limbs from, at other times, quite interesting directors (like Lizzie Borden) that truly earned the adjective unwatchable. Nineteen eighty-nine brought us New York Stories, directed by Coppola, Scorsese and Woody Allen, which made evident the curse of segmented films, since these talents turned in some of the most forgettable work of their careers (though I seem to remember thinking the Allen segment wasn't bad).
Last year came Tales From The Hood, a horror/Blaxsploit/morality play featuring Clarence Williams III (from The Mod Squad!) which points to the roots, or at least the heyday of this form, in horror movies and Seventies television. (Who, God forgive us, can forget The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and Love, American Style?) Tales From The Hood also samples the most enjoyable film of this type I can think of, Trilogy of Terror, made for TV (in 1975), which not only stars Karen Black in each segment but, in a textbook nod to post-modernism, features her in one story playing both a good sister and her evil twin. Three stories, four roles! Trilogy of Terror also has the plot line I'll forever associate with the multiple story movie: killer dolls who crave human flesh. They resurface in Tales From The Hood with the by now familiar, comforting sight of vicious puppets throwing themselves at human ankles.
Four Rooms, to its detriment, has no killer dolls. Instead it has four stylish pieces without camp appeal, character development, tension or indeed, even content. All of the writer/directors involved--Quentin Tarantino, Allison Anders, Robert Rodriguez and Alexandre Rockwell--seem to have stumbled over, among other things, the length requirement. Each segment is only about 20 minutes long but the filmmakers clearly had problems concocting 20 minutes' worth of plot. This is a skill, I suppose, like knowing how much food to take at a buffet. If this movie actually was a meal though, we'd all leave the theater starving.
So, there's a lot of repetition to fill up time, particularly in the Tarantino and Rockwell segments. And if paucity isn't bad enough, all the vignettes are incredibly slapdash, as if the filmmakers went with the first thing that came into their minds. Allison Anders' segment, for example, is about a coven of witches who need some human sperm for a spell. They tip the bellboy fifty bucks and get the spunk from him. The end. Like, isn't there supposed to be some tension, or conflict, or something? Or at least character development? Anders assembles an interesting group of actors (including Ione Skye and Madonna), then refuses to give them anything to do except take off their shirts.
All in all, it's an impressive waste of resources. Quentin Tarantino provides one second of entertainment in 30 minutes of gratuitous yelling about nothing. In the middle of it all, Jennifer Beales delivers a line that echoes the discomfort of the audience: "You've had him here for 15 minutes," she says, talking about the bellboy and, by proxy, us. "When are you going to tell him what this is all about?" Richard Rodriguez' piece is only slightly better, despite the glowering of Antonio Banderas and the cuteness of the child actors he uses.
Worst of all is the segment by Alexandre Rockwell, and it's awful mostly because it features Tim Roth so prominently. Roth twitches and stutters so much through his role as the bellboy, and with no apparent reason, that I began to wonder if he wasn't supposed to have some sort of neurological disorder. He also whispers most of his lines. Apparently, he's imitating Jerry Lewis' performance in The Bellboy, though that kind of screwball comedy, besides being hopelessly out of style, makes almost no sense in this context. I can not stress enough how annoying his performance is.
How bad is Four Rooms? The only way I can measure it is to place it within the hierarchy of bad television, where it belongs. It's better than the vacuous Fantasy Island but worse than the campy, sexist Love, American Style. Your ankles will be safe from little dolls, but beware of boredom.
Four Rooms is playing at Catalina (881-0616) cinema.
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