The seller of good ideas, Drew Goddard is back to directorial debut roots in a 2018 thriller flick reminiscent of Cabin in the Woods. Five strangers meet in a hotel: a priest, a singer, a spy impersonating a salesman, a concierge, and a mysterious young woman. A classic whodunit scenario in the making. Except it comes off the rails when the spy (Jon Hamm) discovers a network of tunnels which act as an observation deck for every room. It’s then up to him to figure out who has been watching them. A spy film then? Meanwhile, Father Flynn (Jeff Brides) is trying to dig up the money left behind for him from his heist-robber days. A crime thriller? Then it’s revealed that the mysterious young woman (Dakota Johnson) and her reluctant sister (Cailee Spaeny) are on the run from a charismatic cult leader (Chris Hemsworth). It’s probably apparent by now that Bad Times at the El Royale has trouble bringing coherency to its many identities, but that’s only the beginning of the slip-ups.
On paper, it’s brilliant for what it has. Talented stars like Jeff Bridges and Dakota Johnson give great performances. Chris Hemsworth is terrific as a dominating villainous hunk with his hair blown out and his shirt ripped open, to comical and terrifying effect. British film newbie Cynthia Erivo is the standout in Bad Times at the El Royale. Taking the role intended for Beyonce, Erivo shows off her musical theatre background as struggling singer Darlene Sweet. She’s one to watch for in the future.
The retro music only enhances the kitsch 60’s décor that the set designers painstakingly sourced, complete with its own custom-made bar stools. The California side of the hotel is appropriately full of golden yellows for ‘the warmth and sunshine to the west,’ says the Concierge (Lewis Pullman). For the ‘hope and opportunity’ to the east, the Nevada side is full of cool purples. Bad Times at the El Royale gives you all the fun (and I mean this earnestly) of being stuck inside The Grand Budapest Hotel with Norman Bates.
Above all else, Goddard’s greatest sin is his snooze-worthy pacing despite being spoiled for concept. The first couple of scenes meander while introducing every new character. The concierge presents the hotel with a grand speech, then again when new ones arrive, for little comical payoff. Aside from a few scenes which have the sole purpose of getting an actor to cry at the camera, most of the dialogue rings hollow. It’s a shame that with a few more revisions to the script, Bad Times at the El Royale could have been one of 2018’s greats. Cabin in the Woods was equally ambitious — deconstructing horror without comedic overtones couldn’t have been an easy sell. Maybe it was the inclusion of Joss Whedon, but Cabin in the Woods was tighter while still throwing ideas at the wall. Drew Goddard could have used a second pair of eyes here. To its detriment, El Royale wants the privilege of leisurely interactions, constant switch-ups, and the stinger moments that an episodic TV show can facilitate.
The box office sadly seems to agree, Bad Times at the El Royale grossed $11.3 million against a budget of $32 million as of October 2018.