Not exactly a bad time, just an overly long one.
Drew Goddard’s sophomore feature; Bad Times At The El Royale is the exact sort of ambitious Hollywood production that I wish I could call a triumph. In an age where it feels that only $100 million budgeted franchise films are the only things really in the public’s cinematic zeitgeist anymore, a mid-budget original feature boasting a massive ensemble cast, coming from an up and coming filmmaker is basically unheard of. It’s a film you want to go into and be refreshed by but, unfortunately, for all its great and refreshing elements, El Royale is ultimately a film that needed to be cut down way more than it was.
Set largely over one night in 1969, the film pits a struggling singer, (Cynthia Erivo), a priest, (Jeff Bridges), a cleaning product salesman (Jon Hamm), a hippie (Dakota Johnson) & her sister (Cailee Spaeney) all together at the bi-state titular hotel, run only by a young, nervous concierge (Lewis Pullman). Everyone is there for different reasons and it doesn’t take too long for us to realise not everybody is who they say they are, as character’s paths begin to cross and intertwine as (for the most part) everybody’s secrets are slowly revealed before a cult leader, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) enters the picture to run amuck for everybody at the hotel.
With this great premise with a lot of potential, an amazing ensemble cast as well as some incredible mid-20th-century production design and Seamus McGarvey’s grainy, creepily lingering camerawork, what could go wrong? Unfortunately, a fair bit.
The film goes on for a whopping 140 minutes and it really does feel like that. There are too many scenes which start off investing before veering into mere tedium. That is also not to mention the numerous singing scenes, despite being sung beautifully by Erivo, begin to just become tedious the more of those sort of scenes there are.
I do find the overall bloated feeling of El Royale interesting, however, being someone who’s followed Goddard’s career since his striking 2012 debut, The Cabin in the Woods. His career has seemed to be plagued with having to drop out of projects. From having to leave as showrunner from Marvel’s Daredevil to focus on The Sinister Six a part of Sony’s ill-fated Amazing Spider-Man franchise and then dropping out as director for the mega-hit The Martian, you can understand why Goddard perhaps would be so uncompromising with this film. After years of having your projects fall apart, making your 140-minute original passion project would be enticing. However, that, unfortunately, doesn’t mean keeping in these individual scenes you love dearly is good for the film. (This isn’t really a criticism, but a just thought I’ve had about what it means to be a Hollywood filmmaker in this current era).
That said, there is a lot to like about the film, aside from a miscast Chris Hemsworth, who doesn’t have the presence a character like Billy Lee would need to be a believable cult leader, let alone anchor an entire third act of the film, the ensemble cast really does make up for a lot of the film’s shortcomings. Bridges, Erivo, Hamm, Johnson, Spaeney and Pullman fit right at home in this knowingly unrealistic, stylish love letter to the illustrious, ensemble pieces of yesteryear and as previously mentioned the visual aesthetics of the film is on point.
I really wish I loved Bad Times At The El Royale, but for all of its infectious elements, it is a film that is really bogged down by its length. It’s the film that on paper should probably be the year’s big sleeper hit, but in actuality, is a respectably ambitious mess and, hey, a film that tries something interesting but doesn’t quite succeed is infinitely more interesting than a mere decent film that doesn’t try anything interesting.