The Misunderstood: Four Rooms

The Misunderstood: Four Rooms

Back in 1995, no filmmaker was more lauded than Quentin Tarantino. He had just come off his game-changing success Pulp Fiction and it was assumed that anything he touched would be instant cinema gold. Such was not the case. Tarantino and three other directors teamed up to make abizarre anthology lark called Four Rooms that died both in theaters and in long-term critical opinion. As with every film featured in this column, I believe that Four Rooms doesn't deserve its reputation mostly because viewers approached it from the wrong angle and likely continue to do so. Tarantino's name hangs over Four Rooms and creates an unfair expectation that it was ever intended to be another feather in society's collective Cinema of Cool cap. In truth, it owes a lot more to a considerably less beloved film tradition: The Weird Night movie.

Four Rooms takes place over a single night at a hotel just a few loose floorboards shy of falling apart. Tim Roth plays Ted, a naive fellow on his first night as the hotel's bellboy. As the night progresses, Ted is confronted with the increasingly strange demands of various guests. Each room contains one of the directors' stories and they occasionally reference one another. Critics were put off by the harsh tonal shifts this too-many-cooks formula provided and audiences weren't keen on the sheer oddness of the stories. But Four Rooms was never meant to be some collection of hip, snappy shorts. Rather, it's a compilation of intentionally goofy, seedy stories, much like similarly divisive comedies like After Hours by Martin Scorsese or Howard Franklin and Bill Murray's Quick Change.

This isn't to say that each of the four segments of the film are equal. "The Missing Ingredient" by Allison Anders is easily the weakest of the four stories. It concerns a coven of witches who plan on summoning their goddess with a special potion, only their youngest initiate failed to procure her part of the mix. The dialogue in this short is stagy at best and clunky at worst, but it at least serves as a kind of light comedy salad to the movie's four-course meal. It should also be noted that of the four directors employed in Four Rooms, Anders has the least impressive resume both before and after 1995. The weirdness of her segment is more a result of a failed high concept than any idiosyncrasies.

Alexandre Rockwell's "The Wrong Man" fares a lot better, though it's easily the hardest short to grasp. It's an intense, dialogue-heavy confrontation between Ted and a couple roleplaying a kidnapping scenario. Things get dicey when the husband starts to suspect Ted of ulterior motives but refuses to break character. Rockwell is the kind of director who revels in that kind of layered weirdness and the whole scene is magnificent, provided you're willing to sit back and enjoy the ride.

The common favorite segment of Four Rooms is "The Misbehavers" by Robert Rodriguez. In between the other stories, Ted is tasked with babysitting two mischievous brats while their parents are at a party. The destruction and insanity of the kids' bad behavior and Ted's impatient cruelty slowly build until a spectacular finish that includes fire and a dead prostitute. This is the key short in the film. There's no point to "The Misbehavers" but to revel in dark comedy. The allure of the weirdest night of one man's life is entertainment enough.

Tarantino closes out Four Rooms with an homage to Alfred Hitchcock in "The Man From Hollywood", a star-studded bit of craziness in the penthouse that stems from a drunken bet between movie business bigshots. Like everything else Quentin Taratino has done, it's a love letter to a bit of pop culture. In this case, it's those lurid corners of cinema that wrap the excesses of the imagination in the alternative space of night away from home. Ultimately, that's what Four Rooms is about. It's not supposed to be a top-shelf film. It's supposed to be a late-night indulgence, a romp through the weird and inexplicable. Taken as such, it's at least three-quarters of a triumph.