Bad Times At The El Royale

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/11/18 17:56:06

"Things to Do In California/Nevada When You’re Dead"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

When Drew Goddard’s directorial debut, the meta-meta horror-comedy cult favorite “Cabin in the Woods,” arrived in theaters in 2012, it was after having spent more than two years sitting on the shelf as the result of delays caused by the financial collapse of its original distributor. For his long-awaited follow-up, “Bad Times at the El Royale,” Goddard seems to have deliberately chosen to one-up himself, at least symbolically, with a film that feels at times as if it had been sitting on its own shelf for at least 22 years, right around the time when the vogue for films aping “Pulp Fiction” was at its apex and one could hardly go to a multiplex without encountering at least one twisty tale involving talkative criminals, ironic violence, unusual time structures and colorful dialogue chock-full of pop culture references galore. If it had actually come out around them, it probably would have gone down as one of the better examples of that particular mini-genre. The problem is that, despite its occasional virtues, it eventually reveals itself to be a film that is simply too long, too overblown and not nearly as witty or clever as it clearly thinks itself to be.

Arguably the most fascinating character in the film is the aforementioned El Royale, a hotel that has clearly been inspired by the Cal Neva Lodge & Casino, a real-life establishment that once named Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sam Giancana among its investors and has had any number of scandals and sordid dealings associated with it. Straddling the California-Nevada border, the El Royale used to host the swankiest of Rat Pack-era soirees and offered guests the option of spending the night in the state of their choosing (with a night in California costing a dollar more, of course). However, by 1969, when the film takes place, the bloom is off the El Royale and the loss of its gambling license a year earlier has left it a shell of its former self in which all of the remaining duties and amenities are performed by manager Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who, despite being the only evident employee left on the premises, is still in regular contact with the mysterious “management” and is still obliged to perform an entire spiel regarding the history and layout of the hotel to each and every guest checking in. That spiel, by the way, does not include any mention of the secret corridors, tricked-out mirrors and movie cameras that have been hidden away to help spy into the rooms.

The increasingly dark and stormy night that the film is set during turns out to be an unaccountably busy one for the El Royale as four separate guests turn up practically at the same time to check in. First to arrive is Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a gregarious traveling salesman whose demeanor is about as subtle as his name and whose traveling case contains more than just his product samples. Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is a guy who sure looks and sounds like a priest at first blush but there is something about him that doesn’t quite seem to add up either. Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) is a singer who has decided to chuck her steady-but-unsatisfying career as a Supremes-style backup singer and is on her way to Reno to make her solo debut at a casino. Bringing up the rear is Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a tough hippie whose car trunk contains a secret of its own in the form of another young woman (Cailee Spaeny). At this point, to say anything else would run the risk of ruining the elaborate array of twists and turns that soon begins to unfold. Suffice it to say, all of these characters, with one possible exception, are not being entirely upfront with their real reasons for being there in the first place and their initial plans will go off the rails long before the arrival of the final major character, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a charismatic young man who will remind some of one of the more notable figures in the history of 1969 and who has arrived at the El Royale to retrieve something that he believes belongs to him and which he will stop at nothing to get back. (In other words, not only is Goddard aping old Tarantino movies, he is even taking an apparent page or two from the project that Tarantino is currently shooting.)

The early scenes of “Bad Times at the El Royale” are indeed filled with a lot of promise thanks to the key elements on hand—a strong cast, a central location that belongs on the short list of memorable movie hotels alongside The Overlook, The Grand Budapest Hotel and the Hotel Earle and, perhaps most significantly, our knowledge that Goddard is a gifted and original writer whose “Cabin in the Woods” showed a real flair for taking the most basic of genre tropes and putting new and audacious spins on them that left both the characters on the screen and the viewers in the audience reeling. The problem is that nearly all of the fun here comes in the setup as Goddard is putting his pieces (at least some of them) on the board. When all of that is done and we expect Goddard to start subverting genre expectations at every turn—as Tarantino did with “Pulp Fiction” and as Goddard did with “Cabin in the Woods”—it just fails to live up to the task. There are points, such as the talk about the unseen “management” of the El Royale and some of its long-buried secrets, where it seems as if he is going to pull the rug out from under viewers once again but these moments strangely fail to amount to much of anything. Meanwhile, other aspects, such as the way that Goddard plays with the time structure to allow us to witness key events from a number of perspectives, are all too familiar aspects of the contemporary crime film genre and the occasional flashbacks to fill us in on the real backstories of the characters are handled in an oddly clumsy manner with the final one, no fair telling whose it might be, coming across as especially awkward. After a while, it just becomes apparent that for all of its style and bluster, the film doesn’t really add up to much of anything and since it clocks in at almost 140 minutes, that is entirely too much of not much here to bear.

Although the script is a mess, it at least has the advantage of having a bunch of good actors on hand to give it a little more form and cohesiveness that it might have had otherwise. It makes sense that Jeff Bridges should be playing a priest, sort of, because he anoints the proceedings with his brand of effortless laid-back cool that it, quite frankly, could have used more of at times instead of the more manufactured kind it mostly traffics in. On the other side of the performance spectrum, Hamm delivers the hammiest turn of them all but it eventually makes more sense as things go on. As the take-no-shit hippie of the group, Johnson is really good and demonstrates a nice, dry wit that the “Fifty Shades” nonsense did not exactly make good use of. The real standout of the ensemble, however, is Cynthia Erivo as Darlene. A Tony Award-winning stage actress making her big screen debut, she commands the screen from the very first moment that she appears and more than holds her own in scenes up against cagey pros like Bridges. Even towards the end, when the film has pretty much flown off the rails, she still manages to keep it grounded in something resembling reality and her big climactic speech, where she unloads a lifetime of resentments on the person who has finally pushed her too far and basically destroys him before our eyes, is a knockout. She even gets a couple of chances to demonstrate her outstanding singing voice in sequences that must have been fiendishly complicated to pull off but were worth the effort.

Alas, the same cannot be said for “Bad Times at the El Royale” as a whole. Actually, the fact that it isn’t entirely terrible almost makes it worse in a weird way. If the whole thing were awful, it would be much easier to simply dismiss it as a failed genre experiment—this generation’s “Mad Dog Time,” if you will—and be done with it. However, since it has been made by people with undeniable talent and style and has some worthwhile elements, it becomes harder to write off because the stuff that is good, like Erivo’s performance, is really good. Ironically, people who never saw “Cabin in the Woods” may enjoy it more than those that did because they won’t go into it with all the expectations of those that did. As for those who did see that film (and if you haven’t, now is, of course, the perfect season for it), they may go into “Bad Times at the El Royale” hoping for another genre-bending masterpiece but after a while, most will only be wishing for an early checkout instead.

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