No one could ever accuse “Bad Times at the El Royale,” a movie I would prefer to call “Bad Times at the the Royal,” of not having a certain style. This is a dark comedy, a noir tale of… well of something, mixed with a whole lot of jokes. It is a lot of fun with some truly enjoyable performances, but that inability to say what it’s about is the film’s biggest problem.
Oh, sure, go elsewhere for your review and you’ll hear people say it’s a crime story or it’s a heist movie. It certainly has crime elements. It certainly has a heist in it. It’s also got a spy aspect to it. It has musical portions as well. There is a bit about a cult. There are drugs. There is a mystery, too. To call it a heist movie is to miss all those other pieces. It also kind of ignores the fact that while a heist takes place, it’s not really about the heist.
Let us take a breath and maybe approach this in a slightly different fashion, shall we?
Written and directed by Drew Goddard, “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a movie divided into chapters, each of which offer up the tale of everyone who finds themselves at this downtrodden hotel straddling the California-Nevada border on a fateful evening. And, here’s the thing about it – all the hotel guests have different stories. They all have different things going on, different reasons for being there. Getting the various backstories is fascinating, but the backstories may have little to do with the events of the evening on which the movie takes place.
That is, maybe the heist isn’t important. Maybe the cult isn’t important. Maybe the spy stuff isn’t important. Maybe the drugs aren’t important. Maybe the weird history of the hotel and it’s owners isn’t important. Then again, maybe some of these things are. We are kept guessing, and that is certainly some of the enjoyment to be had in the movie.
However, by giving us a taste of all the stories, what we wind up with is very little of a whole lot of things. Nothing in “Bad Times at the El Royale” is very deep because, despite a running time of something close to two hours and 20 minutes, there are too many characters whose stories have to be told for any individual story to be deep.
Now, again, these tales are told with panache and the cast; which includes Jon Hamm, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jeff Bridges, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, and Cailee Spaeny; are outstanding. They bring these characters to life, each getting an opportunity to shine when the story puts them front and center.
This is a wildly entertaining movie as far as it goes, but this is a movie almost undoubtedly better at three or four hours in length than at two hours and 20 minutes. At that length we may get the depth each story deserves. As it stands, we waft along never getting time to examine anything.
Goddard does offer us great flare. It is a wonderfully moody film and the truly weird hotel is brought to life in outstanding fashion. It is exactly what you would have it be, except for in-depth.
Perhaps the best way to put it is that this movie gives off the feeling that it is incredibly in love with itself. It is a movie fascinated with its twisting timelines and its jumps back and forth. It is in love with its color scheme and feel and the rain pounding in the background. It is enamored over its song choices. It has a deep certainty of its own coolness (the title certainly reeks of this).
What is truly impressive is that all those elements are almost as good as the movie believes they are. It is, I will say again, a truly enjoyable watch. I most certainly want to see it again—at least a little just to watch and listen to Erivo sing once more—but this isn’t a great film. It never delves deeply enough preferring to impress with its own little tricks than offering a great story.
photo credit: 20th Century Fox