The El Royale is a hotel straddling the border between California and Nevada, allowing for guests to stay in either state (though California costs a little more). Front desk clerk Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) is surprised to have a handful of guests suddenly appear: Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), poor black woman Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), fast talking vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) and foul-mouthed hippie chick Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson).
It quickly becomes apparent that other than the singer, nobody is who they appear to be. When Laramie checks into his room, he immediately begins looking for bugs… not insects, but surveillance equipment. It turns out he’s actually an undercover FBI agent there to retrieve bugs that were left to spy on someone, only in addition to the FBI bugs, he finds others hidden throughout the room. He goes exploring the hotel grounds and discovers a hallway leading to 2-way mirrors set up in each room. It’s here he finds the bizarre truths: the priest is digging beneath the floor of his room, the black woman he assumed was a simple worker is actually a fabulous singer, and the hippie has a young kidnapped woman with her!
As the film progresses, in the style of vaudevillian acts, we learn about each person’s past and how they came fated to have their paths cross at The El Royale, and watch their stories unfold as they interact with one another and try killing each other off. And it all comes to a head when a cult leader (Chris Hemsworth) comes looking for the girl Emily had tied up in her room.
Bad Times at the El Royale has a run-time of over 2 hours and 20 minutes… and you feel every second of it! It just drags on and on as you really have a handful of stories intersecting and masquerading as a single tale. To give credit to writer/director Drew Goddard (The Cabin In The Woods, World War Z, The Martian) each character is unique and has a great back story, and each would be a fantastic lead in their own very interesting movie. Unfortunately, these unique personalities and stories coming together for this fateful night isn’t nearly as good or cohesive as the individual parts and becomes little more than a cinematic cacophony – a long-winded one at that.
This is an ensemble, and each actor plays their part to the best of their abilities; Jeff Bridges shows he’s still a powerhouse performer, Jon Hamm does a great job, Dakota Johnson gives an interesting performance in her attempt to break out from the Fifty Shades franchise, and it’s always great to see Chris Hemsworth be someone other than Thor.
But the breakout performance here, both in terms of acting and singing, is Cynthia Erivo who’s mesmerizing in every meaning of the word. Just like last year when I said Hong Chau deserved on Oscar nod for her amazing performance in the terrible movie Downsizing, Cynthia Erivo needs an Oscar nod for this flick despite it being her first leading role in a feature film.
I’ll also say that production designer Martin Whist (The Predator, Night at the Museum 2, Cloverfield) did an amazing job creating the many looks of the El Royale – it’s elaborate lobby/restaurant combo, each of the unique rooms, the creepy spying hall, etc.
So, while Goddard gets credit for the various interesting characters, it would seem the blame for this movie being so disappointing rests solely on his own shoulders. It’s the story itself that makes this movie so “meh”. Not bad, per say, but certainly not good and a bit boring. There were so many story components that were such misfires it felt like a script in a low-level contest rather than a $32M budget film.
Sure, there were twists at every turn and you never knew what was coming next or from where, but there comes a time when things stop being exciting and start being just droll because we start expecting some kind of twist to occur and the excitement wears off. There’s also a McGuffin introduced that’s never full explained despite everyone making a big deal about it.
Some people will love Bad Times at the El Royale because of the characters, the cast, the overall look… but I feel that many will be disappointed by the second-half of the movie and start checking their watches to see how much time is left. It’s just too much story for one story!