I do try to include thematic content round these parts when I can. And yes, I did have to wrack my brain to come up with an odd but enjoyable New Year's Eve film. Four Rooms is a portmanteau comedy film about a bellhop receiving stranger and stranger requests at a hotel on New Year's Eve. Writer/director Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup, 13 Moons) invited four other writer/directors to contribute stories set in a hotel. They are Allison Anders (Gas, Food, Lodging, Border Radio), Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Desperado), Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs), and Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise). Linklater pulled out of the project shortly before filming, leaving Rockwell with four rooms and a chance to really let the other directors shine.
The central figure of the film is Ted the Bellhop, played by Tim Roth. He ably handles the madcap role, complete with distinctive walk, nervous ticks, and a tendency to lose his cool by throwing a whispered fit. Roth's performance adds a sense of cohesion to a tonally inconsistent film.
Allison Anders' segment "The Missing Ingredient" comes first. A coven of witches rent out a luxury room to reverse a 40-year curse on a goddess. Everyone is responsible for bringing a specific ingredient to the proceedings. The only one to fall shot is the youngest member. She has failed to secure the seed of a man to complete their potion. She has one hour to convince Ted the Bellhop to help her out.
Anders handles a comparable large cast with great skill. You get a good feeling for each member of the coven without having much time to get an impact. Madonna does great work as the leader of the coven, though the true star is the elaborate staging of the hotel room. The witches demanded marble steps, a large indoor hot tub, and a bizarre arrangement of art and plant life to do their bidding. The set dressing helps establish the fantastique nature of the film where seemingly anything can happen on New Year's Eve in this hotel.
Next up is Alexandre Rockwell's bizarre dark comedy mob romp "The Wrong Man." Ted the Bellhop is called up to the wrong hotel room by a drunk party, putting him face to face with a gun-wielding hit-man and his tied up female captive. The hit-man thinks Ted is his target and will not take no for an answer.
Easily the strangest segment, Rockwell toys with roleplaying, mob movie cliches, and marital frustration. You never know what's coming next because the logic is fluid and ever-changing. It's not an unlikable segment; it's just strange enough to make you question your decision to watch Four Rooms at all.
Third is Robert Rodriguez giving you a really good insight into the two kinds of films that would define his later work in "The Misbehavers." Ted the Bellhop is paid on the spot to babysit two rambunctious children who might have a father in the mob. He's certainly involved in crime. The children turn into demons as soon as their daddy leaves the room, watching porn, slugging alcohol, and going through daddy's private belongings to the considerable dismay of Ted.
"The Misbehavers" is like the perfect link between the extreme action Rodriguez and the Spy Kidz Rodriguez. The focus is entirely on the children teaming up to take down their common enemy: Ted, their babysitter. However, this is not the film you use to distract your kids while you run to the store. It's probably the most adult-themed segment in the film. That says a lot considering we've already hit on a sex coven and a bizarre S&M fantasy with guns. With that said, this is also the most straight-forward comedic segment. You're clearly supposed to laugh at the slapstick antics onscreen, where other segments might elicit a chuckle only after you realize what's happening.
Closing out the picture is Quentin Tarantino's "The Man from Hollywood." After Ted calls the hotel manager (Kathy Griffin doing excellent work in one big scene) to try and quit his job on his first night, he is convinced to finish out his shift with a guaranteed large tip from the high-rollers in the penthouse. Ted acquires a laundry-list of supplies--a club sandwich, a sharp hatchet, and a bucket of ice, among others--only to discover a most disturbing bet is about to happen. It turns out the occupants of the penthouse are a director and his crew and they're all obsessed with a particular media artifact.
Self-referential, dialogue-heavy, and not lacking for strange tangents, Tarantino does what Tarantino does well. He writes, directs, and acts in the segment with the heaviest stakes and immediate consequences. The joy of the segment is not the pay-off from the bet but breaking down Ted the Bellhop until he agrees to participate. It's an acting showcase with a looming threat of gore and it works. It's enough to make you wonder why Tarantino has not pitched a weekly anthology TV show of his own.
Four Rooms is not so much an uneven film as a very divergent film. The short films contained within the film are strong and held together by Ted's presence, but they do not hold together at all thematically or stylistically. Ted acts the same as he's thrown in four unique situations. Somehow, the film works because of Tim Roth's performance. A weaker performer would not have been able to maintain such a clear identity shifting from fantasy to twisted drama to slapstick cartoon to thriller. It's best to just dive in and accept the events as they unfold.
Four Rooms is available on Netflix Instant. If you're not ringing in the new year with the Twilight Zone marathon or with a party, this film's a good alternative.