Long-winded and neither as smart, surprising, or sassy as it thinks, Bad Times at the El Royale is a stylish snow-globe of sixties subcultures clown-car piled into an overdrawn neo-noir. Bursting at the seams with metaphorical material and cultural commentary but featherlight on plot and deep-dive character development, this strangers-at-a-hotel mystery has a lot of guff and bluster but little actual punch. It’s not exactly bad times but the times decidedly aren’t so grand either.
Extended edition foreplay results in benign Tarantino-lite theatrics in Drew Goddard’s eagerly awaited follow-up to his monstrous debut The Cabin in the Woods. Goddard, who also wrote the script, opts for a spider web of stories that connect in cursory, inoffensive manner, rarely reaching the shock-and-awe heights one will expect after so much carefully constructed build-up. Goddard employs similar meta tactics he did with Cabin but without Joss Whedon’s touch for weaving webs, it ultimately seems like an exercise in superficial pomp and fanfare.
Seven strangers lurk in a has-been hotel that lies on the fault-lines of the California-Nevada border. The hotel itself is a thing of lurid history, a once-popping venue for criminals on both sides of the law. When a man of the cloth comes asking for a room key, a young but weathered concierge warns, “This is no place for you Father.” Bad Times at El Royale seeks to fulfill that promise – of a dangerous, disturbed even, hotel at the far reaches of morality – but fails to offer anything but a history lesson in learned evils and recycled plot points from a catalogue of other films.
Of our seven, there’s the squirrelly thief posing as a priest (Jeff Bridges); a vacuum salesman with suspect motives (Jon Hamm); a Motown backup singer (Cynthia Erivo); a sexy, sinful, and shirtless cult leader (Chris Hemsworth); his impressionable and wooed follower (Cailee Spaeny); and the femme fatale shlepping said follower around in the trunk of her car (Dakota Johnson). Each represents a slice of America circa 1969 – its moral decrepitude; the seedy emerging underbelly of Americana; the shearing of superficial purities from the prior decade.
Each is treated to a slim-fit backstory but with seven players, none are afforded anything resembling actual depth. Bridges’ Daniel Flynn is ostensibly the star but even he is little more than an unreformed criminal having one last stab at the game. In essence, Bad Times, from a plot perspective at least, is the Seinfeld of thrillers. As George would shout, it’s about nothing. It’s a two-way-mirror with no secrets; a sideshow masquerading as the main event. And the ties that bind are trivial at best.
Goddard finds the sophomore slump hitting hard, his work suffering too many cooks in the kitchen without any semblance of a grand unifying culinary theory. There’s no master chef present. And thus the melting pot boils over. Measuring in at an arrogant 140 minutes, Bad Times at the El Royale drones; an opera of B-plots that lurches from scene to scene without a measurable sense of momentum. Worse still, as it moves into its final movements, it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for where it all ends up and how much time we’ve invested seeing this particular story take shape. A stern editor could easily ax a very needed and very clean 15 minutes out of that movie simply by carving out its impossible number of acapella solos, a fact that speaks to the feature and its maker’s total lack of self-editing.
As such, the film comes across as rather masturbatory- a lot of hot air with a dinky little balloon animal as the prize. The performances are fun enough (Hemsworth in particular chomps into the scenery with toothy abandon) and the film as a whole is a laudable work of behind-the-scenes showmanship. Thanks to delirious photography via Seamus McGarvey and a tantalizing concussive sonicscape from Michael Giacchino, the picture is presented as a delicious package of salty scumminess. But even grindhouse thrillers (which this most definitely aspires to be), are quick in-out affairs of shock, awe, and ultraviolence. Few take up so much real estate with so little payout. And even though Goddard has killed it before, El Royale suggests little more than a vain pretender to the throne, and squatters rights do not apply here.
CONCLUSION: ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ is a misguided attempt to reimagine the strangers-in-a-hotel mystery, baking neo-noir and grindhouse elements into an overlong and under-imaginative smorgasbord of serial cinema. It’s not all bad times though, as Goddard’s sophomore film is packed with fiery technical elements, a clash of exaggerated performances, and a broiling sense of gritty moodiness.