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With: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan, Shea Whigham, Mark O'Brien, Charles Halford, Jim O'Heir
Written by: Drew Goddard
Directed by: Drew Goddard
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity
Running Time: 141
Date: 10/12/2018

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

A 'Royale' Without Cheese

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Drew Goddard's Bad Times at the El Royale is set at the El Royale hotel, which is nestled directly on the border between California and Nevada. Guests can choose which state they'd like to stay in, though California costs a little bit more (because it's California).

In 1969, seven main characters gather at this place. An eighth (Nick Offerman), seen some years earlier in a prologue, buries something in the floorboards of one room.

Needless to say, many of the characters are not what they seem, and shady things are afoot.

In essence, Bad Times at the El Royale is like an Agatha Christie story, or like one of many, many movies that clumsily trailed after Quentin Tarantino's groundbreaking Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction back in the 1990s.

Unfortunately, despite many strong attributes, it lacks the tightly-coiled surprise of a Christie story, and it lacks the general violent crackle of a Tarantino story.

As for the characters, there's smarmy traveling salesman Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), kind, dotty priest, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), and tired, struggling singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo).

Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) appears, apparently having kidnapped a younger woman (Cailee Spaeny). And finally, a bit later in the proceedings, enters the magnetic cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth).

They all check in with a meek, emotionally scarred desk clerk named Miles (Lewis Pullman, Bill's son), who seems to be running the place on his own.

In their rooms, they drop their guards, and the sinister surprises keep coming, mainly in the form of elaborate, chapter-headed flashbacks that provide origins for each and every character.

Writer and director Goddard is a fascinating talent, having cut his teeth working for polar opposites J.J. Abrams (Alias and Lost) and Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel).

In movies, he wrote the clever sci-fi, found-footage hit Cloverfield, received an Oscar nomination for adapting The Martian, and made his own directorial debut with the excellent post-modern horror film The Cabin in the Woods.

The Martian was kept alive by the main character's playful, narrating video diary, and The Cabin in the Woods was keenly aware of its genre's staples, turning them all gleefully sideways. Bad Times at the El Royale, by contrast, doesn't seem to be ahead of the game. It's struggling to keep up.

Whereas Tarantino tends to start his multi-character chamber pieces with long stretches of teasing, building dialogue, Goddard starts this one with a bang, and then slows it down, for a long time.

The movie never justifies its monolithic 141 minute length, and its flashbacks keep feeling more and more like tripping blocks, stopping the story dead.

Weirdly, such commanding actors as Hamm, Bridges, and Hemsworth come across as rather flatly ordinary. Hemsworth in particular is cast in that tired old, simmering, sadistic torturer role, stalking around his captives saying things like "Well, well, well!" Not even this instinctively funny actor can find the right tone for it.

Ultimately, the movie's surprises are expected; these squeaky-clean folks are actually (gasp) criminals of a sort.

The best surprise, however, is an opposite. Darlene actually is a struggling singer, and the bedrolls she drags to her room are not for hiding dead bodies. They are for pinning up to the walls so she can practice in a somewhat soundproof security.

In the role, Erivo, a Tony-winner for Broadway's The Color Purple, is astounding, carrying a wisdom and world-weariness that the others can't manage. For her singing sequences, Goddard cooks up a nifty audio trick that makes her songs echoey and heartbreakingly mournful. When everyone in the film stops to listen, it's okay.

If only Bad Times at the El Royale could have been told from her point of view, or, for that matter, from the point of view of desk clerk Miles, whose very late flashback shows some unrealized promise, the film might have had a shape and a pace.

In other words, perhaps the movie's flavor needed some enhancing: a "Royale" with some cheese.

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