On the menu, Bad Times at the El Royale presents like the ideal mid-awards-season palate cleanser. It’s got a star-laden ensemble, a cool period soundtrack, slick production design, and a premise so pulpy you could chew it. Really, though, it could’ve been run through a blender a bit.
Written and directed over a dragging 141 minutes by Drew Goddard, the movie opens with a juicy, though not entirely original premise: a group of strangers who ostensibly have nothing to do with each other all check in to the same run-down hotel on a stormy night in 1969. The El Royale is a Lake Tahoe resort of faded glory straddling the California-Nevada border, a point made clear by a table-setting parking-lot meeting between Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo, who exchange pleasantries across the state line.
Also in the mix are Jon Hamm, who was clearly relishing the opportunity to affect a Southern accent as dopey as his character’s name: Laramie Seymour Sullivan. Dakota Johnson plays a gun-wielding hippie, while Chris Hemsworth is a hip-swiveling cult leader. As is usual with these setups, not all of them will survive the night.
For a while, it’s rather fun to see Goddard unpack his mystery. A prologue set a decade before the main action features Nick Offerman silently pick apart an El Royale room’s floors, hide a bounty, and reassemble the plywood boards. The payoff takes a while to arrive, but at least we get to see Ron Swanson perform carpentry. The movie’s middle act bounces from room to room, peeling away how each guest arrived at this unpleasant lodge.
Each of those vignettes have charms, but they also reveal one of Bad Times at the El Royale’s biggest flaws: Invariably, I found myself wishing I was watching one of the individual characters’ movies rather than their terminal meeting. Cynthia Ervio’s arc as Darlene Sweet, a backup R&B singer who deserves to be on lead, stands out. A Tony winner in 2016 for her lead turn in The Color Purple, Ervio plays Sweet with equal amounts of aspiration and toughness. The look she gives when Hamm’s character, presenting himself as an appliance salesman, tells her that she probably “knows some gals that might need a vacuum” could cut down the building.
Then there’s Father Daniel Flynn (Bridges), a sometimes scatterbrained priest. If you took two parts Dude, one part Rooster Cogburn, a dash of Wild Bill and mixed them in a cocktail shaker. It’s a Bridges-by-number role, so it’s never bad, just nothing new.
Then there’s Emily (Johnson), the hippie with a couple of guns and a cool car with Alabama plates, who early on is revealed to be rescuing her younger sister (Cailee Spaeny) from cult leader Billy Lee (Hemsworth).
To be sure, it’s Billy Lee’s entry into the picture that provides most of the gas, and its an opportunity for Hemsworth to show off his deranged side. Long-haired, bare-chested, and obviously still in Avengers condition, Hemsworth gets to shimmy across the hotel lobby to Deep Purple, say crazy things about the world, and get young, impressionable people to do his bidding. If anything, it’s a reminder that once he hangs up Thor’s hammer for good, Hemsworth will be a hoot.
On their own, any of these stories could fill a trim, enjoyable romp. There’s even a clever reveal about the titular hotel’s backstory — yes, on top of its geographic peculiarity — that might make some viewers recall Gay Talese’s 2016 New Yorker article about a peeping hotelier. But put together, Goddard has delivered a car crash, albeit a very stylish one.
But that’s the risk inherent in Goddard’s puzzle-box style of filmmaking. Every twist demands another. It’s an approach that’s served Goddard well in the past. His screenplay for Cloverfield stacked pre-recession millennial aspiration, monster mayhem, and a franchise-spawning scientific conspiracy. The Cabin in the Woods, his 2012 directorial debut, revealed bitingly hysterical critiques of the horror genre and the real world’s everyday voyeurism every time it peeled back one of its many layers.
This time, Goddard’s let his visual feasting overwhelm the storytelling and extend the running time long past the audience’s patience. Bad Times at El Royale is sumptuously weird, and Goddard wants to show off every last detail he conjured, but it’s a narrative-killing decision. The final reveal — involving the hotel’s lone employee (Lewis Pullman) — is so convenient that it’s offensive. If the El Royale had a TripAdvisor page, that’d be its top complaint.