Ted the Bellhop (Tim Roth) is having a rough first night at the decrepit-looking old L.A. hotel where he works. It's New Year's Eve, and he's the only bellhop on duty. In one room, a coven of chic Wiccans is preparing for some sort of pagan ceremony. In another, a man has his pretty wife tied up and is engaged in some sort of twisted psychodrama with her. Elsewhere, a couple of bratty kids have been left alone in their room by their temperamental Latin father. In the penthouse, a hotshot young Hollywood producer and several of his cronies are up to kinky mischief. And Ted somehow gets tangled up in all of this.
Four Rooms is the work of four enfants terribles writer-directors of the current American cinema--Allison Anders of Gas, Food, Lodging; Alexandre Rockwell of In the Soup; Robert Rodriguez of El Mariachi; and Quentin Tarantino of Pulp Fiction. It was Rockwell who hatched the idea of an omnibus linked only by the setting of a hotel and the character of a bellhop; the directors hatched their tales individually, and Rockwell and Tarantino scripted some filler scenes to connect the various episodes.
It's one of those ideas that could make for a fluke classic if the segments happened to come together into a single, grandly wacky vision. Sadly, that didn't happen this time. If Four Rooms has a vision, it's a puny, sophomoric one: that Ted the Bellhop will do anything for a good tip. It's not a bad hook on which to hang a comedy, maybe, but there's little on the hook here. The hook is the whole movie.
All four segments have a nice touch or two. Anders establishes a nice atmosphere of silly sexiness in the coven story--which features Ione Skye, Lili Taylor, Valeria Golino and Madonna--but it doesn't go anywhere. Rockwell's yarn, though it's no more than a throwaway, is well-acted by David Proval and Jennifer Beals.
Rodriguez's Charles Addamsey sketch features fine work by the two kids (Lana McKissack and Danny Verduzco), a funny, smoldering turn by Antonio Banderas and some imaginative dark slapstick. It's easily the best episode. The Tarantino contribution is written in his usual, never-say-in-one-sentence-what-you-can-say-in-eight style, but it leads to a beauty of a final kicker.
But the bits of cleverness to be found throughout Four Rooms don't really add up to anything more than momentary relief from the general tedium. The biggest surprise is that Roth, so terrific in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and especially as the smug heavy in the otherwise turgid Rob Roy, rings nothing but false notes as Ted. You can sense him straining to create a properly cartoonish persona that will work with each of the different types of zaniness with which the film confronts him, but he's defeated--his mugging seems labored and mechanical. The animated version of Ted under the opening titles has better timing than Roth.
Omaha (the movie): Directed by Dan Mirvish; with Hughston Walkinshaw, Jill Anderson, Frankie Bee, Christopher M. Dukes, Dick Mueller and Lars Erik Madsen. Unrated. (At Valley Art Theatre in Tempe.)
High on the list of that which is not desperately needed in the world right now is another "quirky" slacker comedy made by a film student in his 20s. Still, another one has come our way, and the surprise is that it's rather fresh and pleasant. As the title would suggest, Omaha (the movie) is a flippant joke on the very idea of Omaha the city, and on the slenderest of premises it delivers relaxed laughs and an atmosphere of Midwestern lyric surrealism.
The hero, played by an actor with the admirable name of Hughston Walkinshaw, is Simon, a nice young man who leaves the title city for Nepal on a quest for spiritual enlightenment. He returns a year later, dismayed at the Buddhist monks' propensity for watching monster-truck rallies on TV. One monk gave him the parting gift of some prayer stones, which Simon's sweet, kooky girlfriend Gina (Jill Anderson) recognizes as emeralds. Somehow, Colombian gangsters get wind of this treasure and pursue Simon and Gina as they travel across the unvarying Nebraskan landscape toward Denver, and an appraiser.
Around this very loose plot revolve street poets obsessed with doughnuts or with Sandy Duncan's Wheat Thins commercials, demonic telemarketers and a Cops-style TV show, while martial-arts action is supplied by encounters with a roving band of "Iowan kickboxers." Writer-director Dan Mirvish, whose graduate thesis for the University of Southern California this film was, is an inventive joker--when the Colombians converse, the subtitles are held up on handwritten cards at the bottom of the frame.
The film is laced with cameos by the real-life governor of Nebraska, the ex-mayor of Omaha, the director of the Department of Roads and other, similar state bigwigs who deliver civic-booster messages straight to the camera. These dignitaries are used as deadpan jokes, and they seem to know it, and not to care, and their good sportsmanship adds to the film's easygoing charm.
It's no wonder that they wouldn't mind Mirvish's teasing tone, since the film is ultimately a tongue-in-cheek love letter to the state. The lesson that Simon learns is that he didn't need to go to Nepal or Stonehenge or the Taj Mahal on his vision quest; that Nebraska just might be "the best place in the world." It's not that different from what Dorothy learned about Kansas.
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Mirvish even stages the finale of Omaha(the movie) at Carhenge, a tourist attraction in Alliance, Nebraska, that recreates Stonehenge out of old automobiles. Contemplating the vagaries of fate that brought him to this odd place,Simon remarks--in a pun worthy of "Peabody's Improbable History"--"It givesa whole new meaning to the word 'karma.'"--M. V. Moorhead
Directed by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino; with Tim Roth, Ione Skye, Jennifer Beals, Marisa Tomei, Tamlyn Tomita and Lili Taylor.