Writer/director Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale is a study in anachronisms; not only is it a movie that revels in its late-’60s period setting, but also one that evokes 20-year-old films that were themselves aping 50-year-old-films that were inspired by 80-year-old films. But that’s not to say that there’s nothing new here — in fact, El Royale is one of those rare bits of genre throwback-nostalgia mining that manages to justify its own existence, more or less. Yes, it’s an ensemble neo-noir quasi-anthology made at a time when audiences aren’t exactly clamoring for such things, but it holds together better than it has any right to, and when it (finally) comes together in the third act, it’s sufficiently bonkers to very nearly justify its egregiously long running time.
Think of El Royale as something like Grand Hotel meets The Killing, with a cast of characters taken straight from the genre trope playbook and thrown together in a central location. There’s the sleazy vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), the kindly old priest (Jeff Bridges), the struggling nightclub singer (Cynthia Erivo) and the femme fatale (Dakota Johnson), all there to make trouble for the hapless manager of the dilapidated El Royale motel (Lewis Pullman). This being neo-noir, no one is what they seem to be, everybody has an ulterior motive or two, and there’s only one conceivably decent person in the bunch. Goddard teases out each character’s backstory with chapters delineated by their room selection, and by the time Chris Hemsworth’s Mansonesque cult leader shows up to turn the third act into a literal hellscape, you’re either on board with this conceit or firmly not.
Realistically, El Royale’s episodic story structure might have been better suited to the kind of prestige mini-series format that streaming services are dishing out in droves these days. As it stands, Goddard’s script is necessarily splintered by its anthological construction, a strategy that proves to be both virtue and vice. Some of the segments are more interesting than others, but none seem to overstay their welcome, and they all tie back to the central through line with varying degrees of proficiency. The downside is that this leaves some storylines shortchanged while others border on the extraneous. The fact that I was both willing and able to put up with the level of narrative fragmentation on display here probably says more about my tastes than the film’s efficacy, so your mileage may well vary.
Overstylized and often overwrought, El Royale is unlikely to be mistaken for high art. It’s at least a half-hour too long, and it doesn’t seem to have much of a larger point to make beyond allowing its cast to chew what limited scenery there is. But that cast is uniformly solid, with Erivo an unexpected standout, and that setting bears an undeniable appeal for those with a penchant for Motown music and midcentury modern design. It may not be the best film of its kind, or even Goddard’s finest hour, but if all you’re looking for is a good time at the movies, you could do worse than Bad Times at the El Royale.