Writer-director Drew Goddard's film about seven strangers whose fates intersect at a once-glamorous motel gone to seed is tailor-made for my brand of entertainment. It has a jam-packed 1960s soundtrack, Dakota Johnson in a suede fringe vest, and Jon Hamm bombastically declaring that "this place used to be hustlin' and bustlin,' and referencing ol' Dean Martin.'"
At the very least, I expected to be amused. But the movie delivers on more than just a perfunctory full-toothed grin, like the one I gave when Chris Hemsworth eventually appears, shirtless, undulating to Deep Purple's "Hush." It's a thriller that's packed with thrills (although some of them admittedly feel random), a weird, fever dream-like vision of the late 1960s and its dark underbelly. It's American Horror Story: Hotel, minus Lady Gaga and her vampires, and more of The Isley Brothers.
But the main event is Cynthia Erivo, who, as singer Darlene Sweet, completely steals the show. She stops at the El Royale, a motel astride the border of Nevada and California, on her way to a performance in Reno the following night. In the parking lot, she meets a Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) a fake priest who's got way more baggage than what could fit in the leather bag he's carrying. As they move into the lobby, they find Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Hamm), a traveling salesman who's hiding an even bigger secret than Flynn behind that oversized Southern accent. This group of misfits is rounded out by the arrival of Emily (Johnson), a mysterious hippie in an Alabama-plated Mustang.
Miles (Lewis Pullman), the concierge who, as the hotel's sole employee, also serves as barman, maid, and part-time voyeur (we'll get to that) gives his spiel about the El Royale being a "bicoastal establishment," and the guests pick a room. (If you're curious, the California side costs $1 more.)
At this point, if you're better at math than I am, you'll have noticed that only five characters have been named, when seven were promised. Emily, it turns out, has another guest stashed in the trunk of her car: her little sister Rose (Cailee Spaeny), whom she's trying to extricate from a Manson-like cult, led by our final character, Billy Lee (Hemsworth).
It would be a shame to spoil the twists of what is a pretty intricately woven plot, but as you may have guessed, the El Royale isn't just any regular old hotel. As Laramie — who is really an undercover FBI agent sent to retrieve some surveillance material that had been planted in a room — soon discovers, he isn't the only one spying on the guests. At the behest of his employers, Miles has set up cameras in a secret corridor lined with one-way mirrors doubling as observation windows that peek into each room, which he uses to record the illicit deeds of the rich and powerful to sell to the highest bidder.
The whole thing gives off major Pulp Fiction vibes, but a version in which the women have clawed their way into the spotlight. With a cast this big, it's hard for any one character or personality to really stand out, and yet Erivo manages to rise above the fray, even when paired with a powerhouse like Bridges, with whom she shares the most scenes. (Her languid rendition of "This Old Heart Of Mine" can join A Star Is Born's "Shallow" in the pantheon of best songs to come out of movies this year.) Between this, and her upcoming turn in Widows, Erivo — who is well-known in the theater world for her Tony award-winning turn in The Color Purple — is definitely one to watch. Newcomer Spaeny (who will star alongside Felicity Jones in On The Basis of Sex later this year) also makes her mark as a young girl torn between the only family she has left, and the man who has brainwashed her into thinking he's got divine status. Johnson's role is small but memorable, and between this and Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria, the actress is poised for a big year.
Still, the film suffers from its own ambition. Bad Times at the El Royale has a run time that's as long as its name. At 140 minutes, it definitely drags, diluting what should be snappy twists and turns in a bloated storyline that sometimes feels disjointed. What's more, the added sub-plot involving one of the films made by Miles and concealed from his employers showing a high-profile individual who has since died involved in a compromising situation in his bedroom (my money's on either John F. Kennedy or his brother, Bobby) is neither developed enough, nor mysterious enough to take up as much space as it does.
But overall, it's a film that makes the most of its gorgeous set and talented cast to deliver a moody crime caper laced with humor and infectious enthusiasm. If you're ready to take a wild journey with some shady characters, Bad Times at the El Royale is your ticket to ride.