Courtesy of Fox
Just as the title suggests, bad and crazy things are happening at The El Royale. A vintage and nostalgic driven mainstay hospitality resort that sits right on the stateline of Nevada and California. Director and screenwriter Drew Goddard (“The Cabin in the Woods”) is quick to play up the motifs of drawing sides, because in the first hour of this film, we have to choose ours.
Not as twisty or clever as it thinks it is, Goddard’s “Bad Time at The El Royale” looks and sounds fantastic; has an ace of a cast, a soulful and funkadelic soundtrack and is a property that’s not a sequel or reboot. So what goes wrong?
For starters, “El Royale” runs the table for 2 hours and 21 minutes, and you feel every second; presents hokey scenarios that fared better in the Tarantino films which inspired it; and tap dances backwards on scenes that become overplayed really quick. So, of course, when a squad of seven, seemingly, random strangers become shacked up inside a sketchy hotel - you can assume not all of them are as peachy as they look.
As for those strangers; you’ve got Jeff Bridges portraying the holy Father Daniel Flynn in his usual stoic demeanor; Jon Hamm has a blast playing vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (what a name!); Dakota Johnson (of “Fifty Shades” fame) sticks to her guns playing hippie Emily Summerspring on the run from someone evil; Cynthia Erivo is Darlene Sweet, a hot-shot singer en route for Reno to headline her first solo gig (and boy can she belt it); and finally - perhaps the most interesting character of the bunch - is the awkward and strange concierge Miles (played convincingly by Lewis Pullman in the actors meatiest role to date) who is nowhere to be found once all these crazy cats start filing in, but eventually makes an appearance delivering a heartfelt and genuine monologue about the history of The El Royale - (which enforces a strict set of guidelines: coffee is 25 cents and YOU must sign the ledger. No exceptions).
It’s a bulky set-up that hints at something on the horizon. Goddard details all their backstories in a similar fashion to “Pulp Fiction” - often backtracking. Whereas that film’s technique enhanced the story, in “Royale” it just feels like a replay of the same scenes from different angles. Another notable concept missing? Sharp dialogue.
Goddard can definitely write smooth and shocking set pieces, but you can only talk for so long. Sooner or later - like in “Pulp Fiction” - you need to deliver on the promise of some brutal thrashings. The only true glimmer of suspense shows up with Chris Hemsworth late in the game as a Charles Manson-esq cultist leader Billy Lee. It’s a refreshing role for Hemsworth, going against his type, but it would’ve served him better had his shirt been buttoned. Plus, at that point, we’re approaching the two hour mark, and, save for a deadly game of roulette (the best sequence Goddard offers) “El Royale” routinely comes up short. Offering characters that struggle to be defined, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions.
Ultimately, “El Royale” does get a slight pass because of the edgy content and for Goddard stuffing our face with juicy monologues (though, never earned) and I’ll always be game for Hamm sporting a thick Southern drawl, and Jeff Bridges playing a stone-cold preacher with an interesting past. The antiquated nature of “Bad Times” is also a crucial selling point, but would’ve suited the scope of the film better had it mustered the pressure cooker tension teased from the beginning.
It’s easy to check in on the premise alone, just don’t be surprised if you want to leave sooner than expected.