Four of America’s hottest indie directors — Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino — get a one-of-a-kind opportunity to display their idiosyncratic talents — and grand follies — in “Four Rooms,” a disappointingly tedious anthology of four short films set in separate rooms of a once-grand L.A. hotel. Tarantino’s cult status and Rodriguez’s recent popularity should help initial marketing of this eagerly awaited curio item, but Miramax faces a tough challenge overcoming negative reviews and bad word-of-mouth in guiding this lugubrious extravaganza into the mainstream. However, as reputations of four helmers are quite established, pic’s not likely to hurt their careers in the long run.
The four stories are set in the same hotel on New Year’s Eve, with new bellboy Ted (Tim Roth) on the job. In the first, rather pointless “Strange Brew, ” a story about feminine mystery and power, Anders aims to spoof and deconstruct female archetypes.
A coven of witches checks into the honeymoon suite to resurrect their goddess , Diana (Amanda DeCadenet), a 1950s entertainer-stripper. The group includes Athena (Valeria Golino), a gypsylike high priestess; the glamorous Elspeth (Madonna), who arrives with her g.f. (Alicia Witt), a juvenile delinquent on probation; Raven (Lili Taylor) and Jezebel (Sammi Davis). Each witch brings a body fluid (blood, sweat, tears) to the gathering except for novice Eva (Ione Skye), who accidentally swallowed her contribution — semen.
Rockwell’s “Two Sides to a Plate,” the weakest segment, begins with Ted entering room 404 with a bucket of ice, only to find a man named Sigfried (David Proval) wielding a .357 magnum at his beautiful wife, Angela (Jennifer Beals), who’s gagged and tied to a chair.
The movie gets a much-needed energy injection in the third — and undoubtedly most entertaining — sequence, “The Misbehavers,” in which Rodriguez again shows his masterly, humorous control of the camera in a story about two kids.
In the closing chapter, “The Man From Hollywood,” Tarantino pays homage to Hitchcock. Chester Rush (Tarantino) — the town’s newest comedy star — and his two buddies, Leo (Bruce Willis) and Norman (Paul Calderon) re-create “The Man From Rio” episode of “The Alfred Hitchcock Show,” in which Peter Lorre bets Steve McQueen he can’t light his cigarette lighter 10 times in a row, with his pinky finger the price of failure.
Most disappointing is that there’s nothing experimental or offbeat about the work, other than the novelty of superstar directors letting their fancies run, though neither wild nor fast enough. As a group, helmers prove more adept behind the camera than as writers; even Tarantino’s notoriously edgy dialogue is missing here.
Roth does a cheap, inconsistent imitation of Jerry Lewis at his most neurotic. Lewis’ 1960 “The Bellboy” seems to be the inspiration for his role. He’s the only character who appears in all the episodes, but given no clever lines to deliver, he delivers an uncharacteristically weak performance.
The minor pleasures to be had here are detecting the different narrative strategies and visual styles employed by the quartet.
Animated credit sequence is amusing and each episode is well-shot and edited by consummate craftsmen. But the production’s sheen conflicts awkwardly with the thin material, making the movie’s lack of real wit and quirky playfulness all the more noticeable. Helmers should move into their next projects to put this embarrassment behind them as quickly as possible.