Bad Day at the El Royale

Last Christmas I was on the East Coast visiting family, and at one point went to see a friend for a few days in Jersey. We were sitting in his Jacuzzi and started talking movies, when he found out I had never seen Cabin in the Woods. It was midnight, but he made us immediately put down our cigars, dry off, and go inside to watch it. The first half was intriguing, but the second half went off the rails.

It didn’t bother me that writer/director Drew Goddard was going from that, to this (and also having an interesting first half, that goes off the rails in the second half).

The commercials for Bad Times at the El Royale looked great, and the director obviously shows promise.

Goddard brought Chris Hemsworth from that movie, into this. It takes place in 1969, and a lot of the characters seem to be…similar to real people of that time. That means Hemsworth is playing a cult leader that’s part Charles Manson, part Jim Morrison.

There’s a music producer that’s a lot like Phil Spector. We get talk about a sex tape of a high profile person that’s dead, which is probably supposed to be JFK. And newcomer Cynthia Erivo (who will be in the upcoming Widows) plays a soul singer that’s being screwed over by the music business (which could be many different performers). She sounds amazing singing in her hotel room, but the music interludes all feel forced. Especially the cool Wurlitzer jukebox that’s constantly playing cool tunes (He’s a Rebel, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, The Letter, Bend Me Shape Me, and about 10 other songs). And because every movie with this style likes to have a scene with a maniacal killer doing their dirty work to an oldies song (remember how great it was in Reservoir Dogs with Michael Madsen torturing a cop to “Stuck in the Middle With You”?)….it’s Deep Purple’s “Hush” for that scene here.

And speaking of Reservoir Dogs…early on I couldn’t decide if this movie was more Grand Budapest Hotel on steroids, or the ‘50s diner from Pulp Fiction, with the entire movie taking place in that location.

The action happens at a motel on the border of California and Nevada, and it’s beautiful set design. When the quirky bellhop/manager (Lewis Pullman) gives a quick tour, you want to hear more about it. The problem is…just writing a bellhop like the one in Tarantino’s Four Rooms, and having people punched, shot, or stabbed in unusual ways…doesn’t make you Tarantino. In fact, even Quentin Tarantino can’t do Tarantino very well anymore. His movies are all bloated messes that wouldn’t be made if they didn’t have the cast or his name behind them.

Now, back to this groovy hotel called the El Royale (even the name of that, makes you think of Samuel Jackson and John Travolta talking about burgers in Pulp Fiction).

The film starts with a confused priest (Jeff Bridges) in the parking lot. A singer (Erivo) pulls up, and they make small talk as they walk into the motel. A fast talking vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm) tells them a bit about the place, insists on having a certain room, and wonders where the staff is. We soon see the priest tearing up the floorboards of his room, and realize that in the opening scene somebody (Nick Offerman in a weird, small part) buried a satchel of cash in there. My wife asked me why when his partner in crime showed up, he merely shot him, without first getting the money. That was the first, of many things that made no sense. You see, Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Crap) comes zooming up loudly in a ‘67 Cougar. That would’ve been fine, except for the fact that we soon see her tying a woman (Cailee Spaeny) to a chair in her room. It would seem the last thing you’d want to do is draw attention to yourself when you’re involved in a kidnapping. Oh, and the one hotel worker. Why in the world does he tell the priest this isn’t the kind of hotel for him? We’re wondering if it’s a place hookers use, or where drug deals go down. It’s rather empty, and looks way too snazzy to be that dead (no pun intended, because…bodies will start piling up).

It’s so frustrating to watch this, because the cast is strong and the scenes are all stylish. They just never amount to much, and there are a few goofy MacGuffins. It’s got poor pacing, is uneven, and pretentious at times. It’s not nearly as witty as Goddard thinks it is. I thought these neo-noir crime movies with ensemble casts and cool tunes went out of style in the ‘90s. Sure, everyone tried to do their own Tarantino picture, and I get that. Let’s just give it a rest now, unless you can do something more interesting than making a bloodbath, or insisting someone pick a color on the roulette wheel for their life (didn’t that get old after Anton Chigurh did it with a coin toss in No Country For Old Men?)

Every time an element in this movie was introduced that was intriguing (the one-way mirrors and tunnels that let the hotel staff see everything in the rooms), it’s followed by another 10 minutes of not so interesting.

We had another “cool” hotel in a bad movie with Hotel Artemis five months ago. Is this going to be a new thing?

Lots of critics referenced lyrics to Hotel California in their reviews: ….this could be heaven or this could be hell…or…you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. I’d go more with The Doors “LA Woman”:

Motel, money, murder, madness/Let’s change the mood from glad to sadness.

My wife and I were certainly sad when we left. We wasted 2 ½ hours of our lives watching it, and that was a 10:30 p.m. show time because we were watching movies all day at the San Diego International Film Festival. That means we didn’t get out of the theatre until 1.

This was self-indulgent and tedious. If you’re going to show us the same scene from a different person’s perspective (the way Tarantino did so brilliantly in Jackie Brown), there should be really good reasons for it.

2 stars out of 5, because of cool production and a fun soundtrack. And I’m being generous.