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MEAN STREAKS

The four disparate filmmakers who contributed episodes to Four Rooms apparently have one thing in common: a nasty streak that won't quit. Set in a down-at-the-heels hotel on New Year's Eve and loosely linked by the presence of a scummy bellhop named Ted (Tim Roth), all the vignettes are resolutely hip and they mean to startle mainstream sensibilities--we're "independent" here, and don't you forget it!--but the entire undertaking is more adolescent than inventive.

Allison Anders, best known for Gas Food Lodging, installs a coven of five witches in the honeymoon suite, where they sprinkle the hot tub with hocus pocus to free the soul of their goddess. Trouble is, one of the witches has forgotten to bring a critical vial of male sperm, The Missing Ingredient that gives the sketch its title. So Ted the bellhop (Roth is all clammy slapstick and comic-book exaggeration) must perform special duty.

Suffice it to say the film's humor never rises above this level, and unless you need to see Madonna poured into black vinyl again, there isn't much to Anders's episode. It aspires to feminist farce; good for it.

In room 404, Alexandre Rockwell, who made In the Soup, gives us The Wrong Man. Enter a psychopathic husband (David Proval), a bound-and-gagged wife (Jennifer Beals) and good old Ted, who's already starting to wear out his welcome. There's some pill-munching, some pistol-whipping and a case of mistaken identity, then Beals lets fly with a taunting litany of slang terms for the male member, the sound of which carries into the hall as the episode closes. If you've got eight or nine Coors Lites inside you and have just pledged Zelta Delta Whatever, you'll probably love it.

Texan Robert Rodriguez, who made the stylish El Mariachi for lunch money, tries next, with The Misbehavers. In this tacit endorsement of child abuse, a glowering, tuxedoed father (Antonio Banderas) hauls his wife off to a party, leaving his two mischievous kids (Lana McKissack, Danny Verduzco) in the care of the beleaguered bellhop, who's growing surlier by the minute. Predictably, the kids trash the room, find a corpse under the bed and do some odd things with a syringe big enough to inoculate a rhino. Meanwhile, Roth slaps them around, which apparently is what freedom of expression and postmodern black comedy entail these days. Every frame of the thing is revolting.

By now, the audience has figured out this isn't Plaza Suite they're watching. And Quentin Tarantino's perverse finale, set (where else?) in the penthouse, confirms the notion. The Man From Hollywood is, in places, a pretty deft slam on Tinseltown vanity: Tarantino himself plays an evil, blustering, status-conscious movie comedian named Chester Rush, and he's wickedly funny. But the vignette is also a travesty on the old Alfred Hitchcock TV episode in which Peter Lorre bets Steve McQueen he can't ignite his cigarette lighter ten times in a row--with the loss of McQueen's little finger as the stakes.

You can imagine what the moviemaker who gleefully sliced a man's ear off in Reservoir Dogs does with this. The fellow with ten digits (to start) is Paul Calderon, the drunk in the bedroom is an uncredited Bruce Willis, and the guy with the meat cleaver in his hand and a thousand bucks in his pocket is--you guessed it: Ted the bellhop.

Need we point out the reduced quality of Zippo lighters in this day and age? Or the reduced quality of current movies-by-committee? Let's not. Let's stop right here.

 
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