A priest, a salesman, and a soul singer walk into a hotel.
That’s the plot of the crime thriller Bad Times at the El Royale, and probably also the setup for a Las Vegas lounge joke. Maybe not a good joke, but at least it would have a punchline, unlike this surprisingly tedious, self-satisfied follow-up from Cabin in the Woods writer-director Drew Goddard.
It’s clear early on that the priest (Jeff Bridges) isn’t a priest, the salesman (Jon Hamm) isn’t a salesman, and the soul singer (Cynthia Erivo)—well, she does in fact have a fabulous voice.
The only thing this disparate crew has in common is their secrets. They converge in a dilapidated hotel split along the California-Nevada border, operated by a furtive manager (Lewis Pullman) who’s hiding something as well. They’re joined by a femme fatale (Dakota Johnson) who’s keeping a girl (Cailee Spaeny) tied to a chair in her room, for reasons that, true to form, remain obscure.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about Bad Times at the El Royale and not invoke the name Tarantino. The film owes obvious debts to Pulp Fiction, with its scrambled chronology, its ensemble cast of tweaked genre archetypes, and its loosely interconnected stories.
But the comparison isn’t flattering. Bad Times at the El Royale is so enamored with its characters’ clandestine blankness that it fails to give the viewer anyone or anything to root for. There’s no shortage of plot, but there’s also not much in the way of story. The individual segments lack urgency, with little musicality to the dialogue, despite the best efforts of a game cast. The talk here is more mannered than stylized.
Goddard’s favored theme is facades. In the delightful (but divisive) Cabin in the Woods, a story of doomed students on vacation, steeped in horror movie conventions, is refracted through the eyes of a group of scientists manipulating the whole clichéd scenario for their own dark purpose. The movie’s defining image is an enormous wall of famous movie monsters standing in their own little symbolic glass viewing cages.
Here again in Bad Times at the El Royale Goddard presents screens within screens. In the first act it’s revealed that the hotel is rigged with a series of secret passageways that allow those in the know to spy on guests through two-way mirrors. The widescreen view to each room is laid out in perfectly symmetric rows, like TVs in a sports bar tuned to different channels.
So much self-awareness has its limits. The glib irony detaches the characters from any discernible humanity. They’re abstracted into cogs for a meticulously constructed plot with no sense of purpose beyond its own intricacy. At nearly two and a half hours of running time, clever-but-not-clever-enough gags become an endurance test.
By the time Chris Hemsworth shows up in earnest, over an hour and a half into a movie whose protagonist remains unclear, you can be excused for not caring why he’s even there.
Bad Times at the El Royale is kooky enough to have cult appeal for those who admire the fussiness of its construction. But just because you’re in on a joke doesn’t make it funny.
Bad Times at the El Royale
Director: Drew Goddard
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Cynthia Erivo
Theater: Now playing, area theaters