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Dan's Review: "Bad Times at the El Royale" isn't bad

Oct 12, 2018 11:58AM ● By Dan Metcalf

Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, and Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale - © 2018 20th Century Fox.

Bad Times at the El Royale (20th Century Fox)

Rated R for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity.

Starring Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, Manny Jacinto, Jim O'Heir, Alvina August, Nick Offerman, Mark O'Brien and Xavier Dolan.

Written and Directed by Drew Goddard.



There are a lot of benefits to putting a large ensemble of gifted actors together in the same film, and a few problems as well. On the one hand, you get a “deep bench” of talent at your disposal and on the other, one or two actors stand out among the rest, leaving a lot that stockpiled talent unused or underappreciated. There are some ensembles that coalesce extremely well, like the first George Clooney version of Ocean’s Eleven. There many more that end up as a Cannonball Run dumpster fire. The latest compilation of Hollywood heavyweights is Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale, dark comedy/drama set in 1969 at a Lake Tahoe motel that straddles the state line between California and Nevada.

The ensemble consists of “Father” Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), an apparent Catholic priest suffering from dementia, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) a struggling Motown singer looking for one last break, Laramie Sullivan (John Hamm) an apparent traveling salesman, Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a vicious southern girl out to protect her younger sister Rose (Cailee Spaeny) from the cult of an evil hippie Charlatan (Chris Hemsworth), and Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the motel’s sole employee, serving as front desk clerk, bellboy, bartender, cook and concierge. The strangers all check in on the same night, their paths inevitably destined to cross. Please note that I used the word, “apparent” when describing the various characters since almost all of them are not who they say they are, each of them harboring one major secret or another. Even Lewis is hiding something sinister, not the least of which is the fact that the motel rooms are equipped with two-way glass that hides a corridor from which all guests can be spied upon. While seemingly equipped for perversions and voyeurism, the motel is really a former spy haven used by political powers and gangsters to blackmail each other years prior, before a new highway cut the El Royale off from cross-country traffic. The gimmick of having the hotel sitting right over the border also gives the establishment a little more intrigue than any your typical Motel 6. The confluence of all these rogues meeting on the same night culminates in a lot of cloak and dagger schemes, strange alliances, and a violent confrontation between cult-leader Billy Lee (Hemsworth) and a few of the surviving group.

Bad Times at the El Royale benefits from the varied and unique talents each actor brings to the ensemble, but the scene-stealer among them is Cynthia Erivo, an African-British performer with a beautiful and powerful singing voice. You may not recognize her unless you are fully aware of her performances on Broadway or the London stage. Her character is the moral center of a movie full of scoundrels, and Bad Times at the El Royale may be the perfect launching pad for a long and distinguished career as a singer and an actor. Jeff Bridges is his same, old grumbly self, adding seasoned gravitas to the group. John Hamm grabs all the folksy lines, while Dakota Johnson delivers one of her best performances as a tough protector and champion of abuse victims.

In short, Bad Times at the El Royale isn’t bad and is definitely worth checking into (get it – checking into, like a mot…oh, never mind), even if it’s a little on the quirky side; sort of like a Quentin Tarantino movie without all the rambling, pompous speeches, racism, sexism, misogyny and gratuitous violence. Drew Goddard dialed that stuff back to deliver a fable about redemption against a backdrop of the turbulent 1960s.

Bad Times at the El Royale Trailer