Mediocre times at the El Royale
“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a recently released film with a stellar cast, an acclaimed writer and an intriguing 1970s aesthetic. The movie takes place at the titular hotel and features eight strangers: a young concierge, a priest, a blues singer, a sleazy vacuum salesman, a rebellious young woman, her sister and a cult leader. The group finds themselves trapped when a storm surges overhead, and their secrets are revealed in a hotel chock-full of its own secrets.
Drew Goddard, the writer and director of this film, made a pretty impressive directorial debut. The Academy Award-nominated writer of “The Martian” and creator of “Lost” and “Daredevil” has had a pretty good track record. His subversion of expectations and genre-twisting style was first introduced in the horror film “Cabin in the Woods” and is seen again in the mystery genre with “Bad Times,” which flips the Agatha Christie-esque style on its head. The non-linear storytelling makes for great comedic effect and keeps the audience interested.
The ensemble was quite impressive, garnering the talents of Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm and Louis Pullman. Bridges does an outstanding job evoking sympathy for the dark, tortured character Father Flynn. Flynn is a miserable man plagued by Alzheimer’s disease and the goal of avenging his brother’s murder. Erivo, best known for her presence on the Broadway stage, is one of two breakouts in the film. Her singing voice is not only easy on the ears but also a clever tool for storytelling. Her chemistry with Bridges and dislike for the remaining characters rings true. The other breakout is Pullman, who is the fan favorite in every scene. He is simultaneously sympathetic, odd, innocent and guilt-ridden. Finally, we have Hamm, whose charm is so magnetic you completely ignore the fact that almost all of his dialogue is expositional. His presence, while used entirely to move the story along, is a delight and unfortunately short-lived.
Aside from the acting, the banger soundtrack and the gorgeous production design, there is very little to praise about this movie. While the first two acts are riveting, the third completely drops the ball. The audience is treated to an unwelcome and frankly uninteresting tonal shift that mainly stems from the script. The narrative structure is captivating, but the stories themselves are bland. You only care about a few of the narrative threads among many. The ones we do stick with, in particular the one involving Chris Hemsworth’s cult leader, is boring. His entrance in the third act nearly ruins the movie. Jon Hamm is barely in the film at all — he’s gone by the second act! Working with such a captivating character, you’d think Goddard would have the good sense to keep him in.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a great two-thirds of a film. But the dynamic set, the fun costumes, the oddball characters and the soulful music could not save the movie from its mediocre script. I’d say director Drew Goddard had an inspired vision, but his bad habits from “Lost” caught up to him and left me wanting more of the good and much less of what we got.