More than 20 years after the 1994 Oscars, plenty of people remain perturbed that the all-caps American allegory of Forrest Gump bested the juggernaut jumble of crime, culture and chronology in Pulp Fiction.
You may have never wondered what smushing together those films might feel like, but writer-director Drew Goddard certainly has. One suspects, though, that he first did so some time ago and that only his own Oscar nomination (for writing The Martian) mustered a mighty gale to blow dust off the script he fashioned from that fantastical notion.
The result is Bad Times at the El Royale — a film set at a once-glamorous, now-rundown Tahoe hotel in 1969, where the claustrophobic setting also resembles Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. The film is about scumbags and saviors hiding secrets while shooting at each other in pursuit of (more tangible) treasure in a briefcase. It’s also about the quagmire of Vietnam. And the quandary of Charles Manson. And the cultural upheaval of Jim Morrison. And the putrefaction of Richard Nixon. And privacy erosions perpetrated by J. Edgar Hoover. And Civil Rights struggles as seen through a soul singer’s eyes. And the immaculate songcraft of Motown standards she performs. And the idea that the El Royale is a nexus for nefarious deeds, like a HoJo on the edge of Hades. And the idea that absolution and damnation are a hand-wave away.
So much “and” intrigues for a while. But after 141 minutes, it feels like watching a hapless bellhop crumble under the weight of bag after bag. El Royale interrupts even its climactic shootout for a contextual flashback to thicken its thematic divisions of right and wrong. By that point, Goddard has also literally bisected the El Royale — one half in California and the other in Nevada — with a line down the middle. One character walks that line like it’s a crack in the world itself. Another character dies on it. Another character divvies up two others into “right” and “wrong,” has them fight, and then shouts “Let’s have ourselves an allegory!” as it happens.
Yeah, yeah. Bullets and blood. But do you get how IMPORTANT this is supposed to feel?
After bringing a human center to his 2015 adaptation of a popular but overly technical novel, Goddard retreats to the mental masturbation of Cabin in the Woods — the last time he tried sneaking something through the backdoor of lurid genre that co-stars Chris Hemsworth. (That actor’s initial appearance here plays like a studio note to get him in early and undercuts what would’ve been a glorious reveal to kick off the third act. Regardless, Hemsworth continues to deconstruct his serious side here, shimmying shirtless to Deep Purple while dishing some pie.)
Though less playful or entertaining, El Royale is similarly structured as a puzzle for which Goddard strains mightily to make sure you see the flair and flamboyance with which he’s snapping the pieces into place. Save one great whiskey-endorsing quip from Jeff Bridges — whom you know can’t possibly be the priest he says he is because he’s Jeff Goddamn Bridges — Goddard’s neon-soaked noir contains some shockingly soft-boiled dialogue. There’s a moment when the El Royale’s beleaguered bellhop / bartender / concierge says “I once saw a man lay with a wolf” … and then keeps talking and talking to leach the lightning from that shocking statement.
There are upsides to the ponderous moments, namely how cinematographer Seamus McGarvey lingers on the mid-century marvels of Martin Whist’s production design. It’s the sort of place people come to because “the outskirts are cheaper” — pastels and plaids, cascading light fixtures and wraparound booths, shadows running deeper, darker and longer.
The languor also gives legroom to a mostly terrific cast (the dead-eyed Dakota Johnson aside), and they have fun with the idea that we know their identities and intimations are, to some degree, all just a grift. In addition to Hemsworth’s sinister shenanigans, it’s a hoot to hear Jon Hamm straight-up Foghorn Leghornin’ it as an appliance salesman who, again, is so obviously not an appliance salesman. Bridges also brings his usual inimitable idiosyncrasies to what could have been an off-the-rack coot.
And you certainly won’t mind hearing the many Motown songs performed by Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, playing perpetual second-banana singer Darlene Sweet. Erivo shows us a woman able to hoist her pride each time even as the weight increases in burden and absurdity — so used to craven attention that she barely recognizes compassion. Darlene’s realization that she is just done with patriarchal, condescending bullshit spoken solely for men to hear their own voices — “I’ve heard it and I don’t care” — solidifies her as the only character with whom we make any true connection and Erivo as an actress about whose moment to be profoundly excited.
Otherwise, El Royale is Fox’s seemingly annual eccentric studio oddity that its upcoming Disney merger will likely kill … but also the sort of overindulgent slog that makes you feel like such a death might be merciful. It’s both a pretentious piece of pulp that simply tries to ponder too much and a crime story full of motive and means but short on opportunity.