Drew Goddard's Bad Times at the El Royale opens with a mysterious scene depicting an unnamed man (played by Nick Offerman) methodically deconstructing one of the rooms at the titular hotel, hiding a satchel of some kind under the floorboards and then putting everything back together exactly as he found it. When the movie cuts to a decade later (in 1969) and introduces a group of eccentric guests all checking in to the nearly abandoned hotel straddling the California-Nevada border near Lake Tahoe, it sets up a chase to discover that buried treasure among various presumably unsavory characters.
Except that's not what really happens over the course of the slow, overlong movie, which is heavy on style but light on engaging characters and narrative coherence. Goddard divides the movie into segments via title cards that reference each guest's room number, but the chapters bleed together in a way that ends up rendering the divisions meaningless. When the story doubles back on previous events to explore another perspective or disclose further information, it's more redundant than illuminating.
The more that Goddard reveals about his characters and their true motivations, the less interesting the movie becomes.
Before we know much about them, though, the characters are pretty intriguing: There's an unctuous traveling salesman with a thick Southern drawl (Jon Hamm); a haggard, haunted priest who doesn't seem particularly godly (Jeff Bridges); a no-nonsense lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo); and a sullen hippie (Dakota Johnson). There's also the hotel's jittery sole employee (Lewis Pullman), a combination of concierge, bellboy and housekeeper who obviously holds secrets of his own.
Hamm gets to chew plenty of scenery before his character makes a disappointingly early exit, and the other characters (including a late-appearing Chris Hemsworth as a Charles Manson-style cult leader) all get their moments in the spotlight, although none of them are quite as entertaining. Stage star Erivo makes the most of her big-screen debut, belting out a series of classic rock and R&B songs as aspiring singer Darlene Sweet, although her drawn-out performances eventually start to feel like filler.
The meandering back stories of the various characters also feel like filler as the movie heads past the two-hour mark, and all of Goddard's visual flourishes and narrative fake-outs (which owe as much to Quentin Tarantino's inferior imitators as they do to Tarantino himself) end up as just window dressing for a story that never comes together. The period setting and the unique location (with the state line literally drawn through the middle of the hotel lobby) turn out to be mostly irrelevant, and there's little going on that couldn't have been seamlessly transported to another time and place.
A veteran TV writer and producer, Goddard made his feature directorial debut with 2012's The Cabin in the Woods, a funny and self-aware deconstruction of the horror genre, but Bad Times has very little of that movie's wit and charm, especially as the story moves into darker and darker territory. Goddard relies on noir and thriller conventions without subverting or refreshing them, and the performances are uneven (Bridges and Johnson often seem bored with the material, while Hemsworth is miscast as a charismatic sociopath).
Every time Goddard seems to settle on a direction, the movie shifts focus to a different character or a different storyline, and by the end it's hard to tell what the audience is meant to care about. The visual style is appealing, Erivo's voice is lovely, and Hamm is having a lot of fun, so Bad Times isn't an entirely bad time. But it's not nearly as enticing as its opening vignette indicates. ♦