Bad Times at the El Royale
After the clunker that was Hotel Artemis, it’s not unreasonable to feel that we’re owed a better hotel-themed movie in 2018. Bad Times at the El Royale is slightly more successful, but still comes a little short of greatness.
The film begins with a shot framed squarely on a hotel room. A man checks in and promptly gets to completely disassembling the room. He peels back the carpet and pulls up the floorboards. After stashing his only bag under the floor and reassembling the entire room, he waits. And he waits. When someone finally comes knocking at the door, this man is relieved. Perhaps his ease is a bit premature, because his guest shoots him dead moments after he arrives, and then the rest of the story begins.
Flash forward to ten years later. The El Royale hotel, situated on the California-Nevada border, is not what it once was. The hotel itself looks reasonably well-kept, but what was once a bustling casino and hangout is now a forgotten place to hang your hat. The check-in clerk (Lewis Pullman) needs to be woken up when a few scattered guests arrive. We’ve got the talkative and casually racist salesman (Jon Hamm), the aging priest with kind eyes (Jeff Bridges), the quiet and weary singer (Cynthia Erivo), and the late addition of the hippie with a secret (Dakota Johnson). Though a few other guests will arrive, some willfully, some not, this initial gang is the core of the film and their arrival at the hotel starts the party.
All the guests have a backstories to make them worthy of their flashbacks, but the most intriguing character in Bad Times at the El Royale is the hotel itself. Like any person with a dark past, the hotel has hidden corridors and passageways. There’s no need to wonder if those walls could talk, because they can barely stop shouting once they start. Unlike Identity, the hotel is what unites this group of strangers, rather than an intertwined history.
All of the performances make the best with what they’re given. Some of the plot twists are obvious and the dialogue borders on that hokey version of noir that’s tough to deliver, but Bridges is a professional at selling that level of camp and does so with ease. Erivo is clearly the heart of the film and stands out amongst the massive ensemble cast as the one to watch.
The art direction and soundtrack also help viewers sink back into the year 1969. Soul music and hippie rock dominate the film, through the jukebox and our singer’s rehearsing, and its careful curation is downright delightful. In addition to the beautiful set designs and costuming, the cinematography and camera movement help us feel like we’re exploring the hotel along with the characters. The camera’s point of view and long dolly takes make us voyeurs in these hidden spaces.
All of this is well and good, but the major problem with Bad Times at the El Royale is the bloated running time. The story keeps moving along, with few notable lulls, but at 141 minutes the film is an exercise in keeping the attention of the audience, and losing. Just as certain storylines are tied together, others and new characters appear. Bad Times at the El Royale simply does not show any restraint in editing and honing the story, and suffers because of it.
If it weren’t for overstaying its welcome, Bad Times at the El Royale could have been a great popcorn movie to kick off this year’s fall season, but it holds its own ideas and characters too precious.