There are worse things than Drew Goddard (co-writer and director of The Cabin in the Woods, writer of The Martian and Cloverfield) doing his best Quentin Tarantino impression, but “Bad Times at the El Royale” is an earnest effort that is exceedingly long and a bit too ambitious. It’s still an entertaining film, and worthy effort, even if it would’ve been a greater movie with a few edits and someone trying to reign the director in a bit.
It takes so long for the movie to get into the story, but I’ll do it a quick disservice. In the middle of the desert in the late 60s, at a hotel that straddles the California and Nevada border, a disparate group of characters attempt to check-in, each hiding a number of secrets, one of which is tied to the violent prologue set in Room 4. There’s Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a slick, exhausting vacuum cleaner salesman; poised and quiet Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) an African-American backup singer; the gravelly voiced and forgetful Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), and Emily (Dakota Johnson), an aggressive and reclusive hippie. They are tended to by the nervous Miles (Lewis Pullman), the bellhop, bartender, cleaning staff and front-desk attendant.
Before the night is over, there will be blood, bodies, more mysteries, an enigmatic cult leader (Chris Hemsworth), fire, rain, dancing, murder, mayhem, and a quick detour to the Vietnam War. It’s all just too much, in both good and bad ways. Hamm, Hemsworth and Bridges get to have a lot of fun with their characters, leaving nary a swatch of scenery un-noshed. Johnson makes good use of the withdrawn vacancy that served her mother and grandmother well in their careers. The real heavy lifting is done by Erivo who has to anchor the whole thing with possibly the only decent character and gets to showcase her powerful singing voice, and Pullman, whose wet-eyed awkwardness is endearing.
The script is fun, even as it meanders out of control by the end. With nearly all the action taking place in one night at one location there’s a sense of urgency that pumps through the proceedings but it goes on too long and takes a few steps too far, that make the whole thing seem a bit more messy in hindsight.
My Grade – B