Review: ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ fails to live up to its hype

by James Cronin | 10/25/18 2:00am

I love my Saturday afternoon naps. I really do. Six of the seven Saturdays that I’ve been on campus, I’ve spent buried under a pile of blankets in a coma-like state that I didn’t emerge from for at least three hours. If I don’t have my Saturday afternoon nap, there is a serious possibility I won’t have enough energy to power through the weekend. The one Saturday I didn’t nap was last weekend, when I saw “Bad Times at the El Royale.” Even though I knew very little about the movie and had no real expectations for it, it already had some stiff competition it needed to beat to make the experience worthwhile — because while it had moments of genuine entertainment, it failed to be a better time than a Saturday afternoon nap.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is about a group of strangers with shady pasts whose paths cross at a rundown hotel on the California-Nevada border. It is in no way a bad movie. It’s not even a mediocre movie. The acting on its own is enough to propel it firmly above any such derogatory classifications. However, despite being a solid, slightly above average movie, the film appears to be a lot worse because of what it so easily could have been.

The acting in this movie is the one nail it hits perfectly on the head. For such a talented cast, it should have been expected, but that’s one of the perks of going into a movie with little prior knowledge. Jon Hamm and Chris Hemsworth are electrifying when they’re on screen, but unfortunately, they didn’t get as much screen time as I assumed given their prominence in the one trailer I allowed myself to view. The legendary Jeff Bridges delivers a superb performance as usual — my favorite of his since his 2016 film “Hell or High Water.” But good performances are the norm with these three actors; what really blew me away and was easily the most pleasant surprise of the whole movie was the acting ability of Lewis Pullman. At first, I thought Pullman, who plays the hotel’s concierge, clerk, bartender and housekeeper, was just a discount Tom Holland or Jamie Bell, but as the movie progressed, his character quickly became the most compelling to watch due to his stirring performance. Cynthia Erivo also gives a strong performance as an African-American singer who stops at the hotel on her way to a show in Reno. One of the scenes that’ll stay with me the most revolves around her character singing the Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)” to herself in her hotel room while, unbeknownst to her, another character watches her through a two-way mirror. Dakota Johnson gives a serviceable performance, but she unfortunately pales in comparison and is much more forgettable than her fellow castmates.

It’s clear the actors all believed in director Drew Goddard’s vision, as each one of them display some of their finest work in this movie; they even went so far as to take pay cuts to allow Goddard to bring his vision to life without studio interference. However, there are a few issues with Goddard’s execution of his vision. This movie tries incredibly hard to be Tarantino-esque. The film is basically “The Hateful Eight” if it took place in Jack Rabbit Slim’s, the 1950’s themed diner in “Pulp Fiction,” but without the soundtrack, atmosphere and cinematic mastery that Tarantino brings to the screen. This can be seen in the stylistic choice to separate the movie into different sections that are named after the different rooms of the hotel (e.g. Room 4, Room 6, Maintenance Closet). On paper, this sounds like an interesting way to divide up the film but, in practice, it just made the movie feel bloated as the audience is forced to see the same events happen from different perspectives over and over again. At one point, we see a character die three full times! This killed the movie’s momentum and just added to an already way-too-long runtime of two hours and twenty minutes. It’s not a bad thing to emulate another artist’s work — Tarantino himself emulates other legendary filmmakers all of the time — but I expected a bit more from Goddard considering he was the writer of the incredibly unique 2012 horror film “Cabin in the Woods.”

The plot of this movie was not particularly strong and did not leave much of an impact as I left the theatre. I was just left scratching my head wondering, “What was the point of all that?” Days later, I’m still not sure of the answer. The movie’s plot basically boils down to “some bad things happen at the El Royale hotel,” no more, no less. I will probably no longer think about this movie because it failed to leave a mark on my psyche in any way, and, as a result, it is well on its way to fading from my memory. Sadly though, it’s evident that there was so much potential for a better movie. Early on in the film, a character with easily the most interesting backstory, whom we’re led to believe will be relevant throughout the film, dies and is never brought up again. From that point on, my interest waned because the story that the audience received instead was not as compelling as what the movie led me to believe we were going to get. There are also a lot of loose plot threads and points that aren’t touched upon enough, like a film tape which becomes relevant only in the last twenty minutes for some unclear reason, and a series of murders associated with a character that are mentioned briefly via the news but never brought up again by anyone.

I don’t regret watching this movie. I wish it was better because it’s so close to being a really amazing, unique film but, for what it was, I didn’t hate it. Great performances, a discount Tarantino style and some genuinely entertaining moments make it a slightly above average movie, but its wasted potential seriously detracts from the overall experience. I won’t be watching “Bad Times at The El Royale” again anytime soon, and I can say with confidence that it is definitely not worth missing out on a Saturday nap.