Rarely has the phrase “all sizzle, no steak” seemed more applicable to a movie than to Drew Goddard’s “Bad Times at the El Royale,” a film awash in style and intricacy but ultimately brainless—not to mention that it fails to satisfactorily answer some of the basic questions raised in an admittedly striking opening set-up to the complicated but shallow story it laboriously unfolds over the course of the subsequent two-plus hours.
That first sequence, however, is a beauty, following a man (Nick Offerman) as he enters a hotel room, moves aside the furniture, rolls up the carpet, pries open the floorboards, and tosses a bag into the crawlspace beneath before restoring the room to its original appearance. He then sits patiently, waiting for someone to arrive, and someone does.
Cut to fifteen years later in 1969 as a series of guests arrive at the place, now a barely-open Lake Tahoe joint located on the very border separating California and Nevada, so that one can choose a room in either state. Meeting in the parking lot are Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a genial but somewhat scatterbrained priest, and Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a singer tired of backup gigs and looking to make it as a solo artist. In the lobby they’re greeted by Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Joe Hamm), who as the actor’s name suggests delivers a broad caricature of a drawling southern salesman. They are soon joined by hard-edged Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) and the place’s sole employee—manager, or glorified bellboy, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), whose shy, nervous manner conceals a troubled past.
But everyone in this motley crew is hiding something, of course, and over the course of many slow, extravagantly choreographed sequences, some of which recur as seen from different perspectives, the script reveals what all the buried secrets are. Along the way a couple of additional characters are introduced. One is a young girl (Cailee Spaeny), who has a special relationship with Emily. The second is a cult leader named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), who arrives with revenge on his mind and a bevy of gun-toting followers to do his bidding.
The “Bad Times” at the hotel include plenty of violence and some bloody deaths, as well as a good deal of torture and quite a few sudden assaults. It’s entirely appropriate that the big finale, which frankly drags on unconscionably, should occur in the midst of a terrible storm that threatens to bring the place down around the heads of those who have survived until then.
There’s some fun to be had from the performances, which are thoroughly hammy but intentionally so. Bridges does the aw-shucks routine he’s perfected over the years, while Pullman actually manages to earn some sympathy amidst the sheer campiness the others deliver. Erivo does, to be sure, sing quite wonderfully, though it must be said that her vocals are unduly prolonged (though to be fair, so is everything in the movie).
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the twists and turns Goddard has in store for viewers; suffice it to say that some of them relate—as is explained at length toward the close, via both narration and flashbacks—to the opening tableau, even if in the end all the sleight-of-hand doesn’t really explain how or why that sequence ended as it did. Other plot threads, however, are merely coincidental; one has to do with high-level conspiracies, connected with a concealed corridor behind the rooms, equipped with cameras that record embarrassing footage for blackmail purposes, while another—the whole Billy Lee plot line—is really extraneous to everything else, concocted to do nothing else but give Hemsworth and a couple of other cast members the opportunity to strike poses and smack their lips while delivering pulpish dialogue and engaging in random acts of bloodletting.
Then there are Darlene’s back story, which allows Goddard to make a statement about the causal abuse of women that was commonplace in the sixties but is no less relevant to our own day, and Miller’s, which affords the chance to bring the horrors of the Vietnam war into the mixture. These are not unimportant matters, but they’re treated in such a throwaway fashion that they have no resonance, serving instead as just a couple more vacuous devices to drive the story forward.
The upshot is that “Bad Times” comes off like little more than an ostentatiously sophomoric puzzle whose pieces don’t fit together into anything resembling a compelling whole. Despite an implicit promise that eventually the various parts of the narrative will eventually be unified into some intelligible composite, the various plot strands wind up as merely random and unconnected to one another: instead of the “ah, yes!” you’d sigh if the details all joined perfectly at the close, you’re instead left asking “so what?” and wondering why you’ve invested so much time and energy in trying to figure things out.
On the other hand, you can simply sit back and gorge yourself on the over-the-top performances, in which each actor is given ample opportunity to chew the scenery mercilessly; on the sets, lavishly fashioned by production designer Martin Whist and dressed by decorator Hamish Purdy, and shot by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey in swooning, luxurious camera moves; on the music, not simply the new score by Michael Giacchino but the array of pop numbers, especially those sung by Erivo; and even on the editing by Lisa Lassek, which lingers entirely too much (no doubt Goddard resisted losing even a line of his oh-so-clever dialogue) but certainly gives the material a feeling of smooth inevitability.
In the end, though, “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a case of a movie trying so hard to be cool that it winds up as nothing more than a flamboyant but empty exercise in self-indulgence.