Bad Times at the El Royale plays like Quentin Tarantino in third gear. In fact, just call it Reservoir Dogs on Beautiful Lake Tahoe. And while this film coolly copies the detached hipness and fragmented structure of Tarantino’s early work, it’s missing the ballsy, fuck-you attitude that made those movies so grippingly watchable. It’s rescued–somewhat–by forceful performances from a top flight cast and meticulous attention to period detail (and that might seem like a strange thing to praise, but the filmmakers really went the extra mile to create a particular time and place), but this drab, derivative neo-noir still counts as a near miss.
It’s 1969, and seven disparate, desperate souls converge on the El Royale Hotel, a smarmy, eccentric establishment that straddles the border between California and Nevada. (Think of it as if Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel reincarnated on the edge of Reno.) The story delivers a strong lineup of weirdos: Jon Hamm’s vacuum salesman is Don Draper with a faux-Foghorn Leghorn accent. Cynthia Erivo plays Darlene Sweet, a frustrated soul singer. Jeff Bridges’ kindly priest is losing his memory and may not be what he seems. Dakota Johnson, one of the standouts, is an ass-kicking hippie on the outside, with a soft, sentimental soul buried beneath. And there’s the hemming and hawing desk clerk (Lewis Pullman), who has a handy hidden talent. Finally, Chris Hemsworth rounds things out as a hunky psychopath who heads a cult that looks like the Church of Ted Bundy.
Are all these plot strands gonna get pulled together in a fiery, convoluted conclusion? You can bet your biscuits on it. But, much like driving to Fairbanks, Alaska, getting there’s the tricky bit. This is a shambling, sprawling story, told in disjointed time. The film hops from room to room in the hotel, each with its own subplot. And each subplot has a buncha flashbacks. And then there are more subplots, and more flashbacks. It goes on and on, like a charming but oblivious houseguest who can’t figure out from your cleaning and checking your watch that the party is long over. This is a really good 100 minute movie stretched to 141 minutes.
It’s a shame, because the actors are clearly having fun. The soundtrack (especially when Erivo sings) strongly evokes one of the best periods for American music. But, after a certain point……Big Gulps, eh? While Pulp Fiction was a 150 minute epic, it’s cup was brimming–runneth over–with phenomenal dialogue and scenes of brilliant, unhinged goofiness. Like a great bottle of Bordeaux, you’ll find new stuff to love every time you go back for another glass. Bad Times at the El Royale should’ve been a beer for shotgunning–fast, fun, and disposable. It aimed for something more, and this ambition turns out to be its biggest flaw.