‘El Royale’ a pale im­i­ta­tion of in­flu­ences

Albany Times Union - - TV / ENTERTAINMENT - By Mick Lasalle

To watch Drew God­dard’s “Bad Times at the El Royale” is to en­counter an un­de­ni­able cin­e­matic gift, but one that seems to have been nur­tured on toxic waste. God­dard knows how to sneak up and star­tle an au­di­ence and cap­ture its at­ten­tion, but it’s as if the en­tire moral struc­ture of his film has been de­rived en­tirely from other movies, and he seems to have learned the wrong lessons from his el­ders.

God­dard has the pes­simism of the Coen Bros. without the hu­mor and grandeur, the ni­hilism and nas­ti­ness of Tarantino without the wit and the vi­sion, and the cute­ness of Wes An­der­son without the color and flair. So God­dard is one frus­trat­ing case, too tal­ented to be dis­missed, but a tal­ent in ser­vice of noth­ing, and seem­ingly aware of noth­ing, as if it never oc­curred to him that 141 min­utes of clever ug­li­ness doesn’t con­sti­tute an epic — epics be­ing, not just a mat­ter of size, but of thought and spirit.

The movie be­gins with a long shot of a gang­ster, circa 1960, en­ter­ing a mo­tel room. He breaks up the floor boards and buries a suit­case, then puts the floor­boards back to­gether and cov­ers it up with a rug. This word­less scene goes on and on, fool­ing you into think­ing you’re en­coun­ter­ing a main char­ac­ter, but fi­nally cul­mi­nat­ing in the gang­ster’s get­ting killed and the movie’s skip­ping ahead 10 years. This sets a tone: Here’s a film­maker with the abil­ity to sur­prise, but not de­light.

As in Tarantino’s “The Hate­ful Eight,” sev­eral char­ac­ters con­verge on a sin­gle lo­ca­tion, in this case a Lake Ta­hoe ho­tel that sits right on the bor­der be­tween Ne­vada and Cal­i­for­nia. The first to ar­rive are a South­ern sales­man (Jon Hamm), a backup singer (Cyn­thia Erivo) and a Catholic priest (Jeff Bridges) and what fol­lows is a bloated, charm­less con­ver­sa­tion, driven by the sales­man char­ac­ter, with Hamm fail­ing to do a con­vinc­ing South­ern ac­cent (per­haps in­ten­tion­ally).

Later a young hip­pie (Dakota John­son) shows up, and it’s soon re­vealed that she has kid­napped an­other young woman (Cailee Spaeny). Add in the very Catholic, very guil­trid­den ho­tel clerk (Lewis Pull­man), and the crew is com­plete, at least for this early stage of the movie.

God­dard gets good things from most of his ac­tors. Alas, Hamm can’t strike the right note, and Chris Hemsworth is ab­surd as a Man­son-like cult fig­ure — the movie takes place in 1969 — but John­son over­comes her Anas­ta­sia Steele pas­siv­ity and finds her­self as an as­sertive pres­ence. In strong com­pany, Erivo dis­tin­guishes her­self with a per­for­mance of steadi­ness and pro­bity, and Jeff Bridges does what Jeff Bridges does. He is hu­man, true and deep, and al­ways real.

Ob­vi­ously, the ac­tors didn’t just step onto the set and start talk­ing. God­dard wrote these lines and di­rected these per­for­mances, so there’s hope for the fu­ture. Even here, there are in­di­vid­ual scenes that light up, such as the leisurely con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the singer and the priest, and the long and prac­ti­cally avant-garde se­quence, in which an FBI agent dis­cov­ers that ev­ery room has a two-way mir­ror. One also has to ad­mire God­dard’s dou­ble-sur­prise trick: Sev­eral times here, he hits the au­di­ence with a big sur­prise and then hits us again, with a sec­ond sur­prise, within 10 sec­onds.

Un­for­tu­nately, ev­ery time there’s a step for­ward, there’s a step back. Too of­ten God­dard stops the ac­tion and cranks up the sound track, as if try­ing to lend an air of mean­ing and por­tent that just isn’t there and can’t be man­u­fac­tured. In its last third, as the movie col­lapses into tire­some ni­hilism and point­less­ness, God­dard starts in­sist­ing even more em­phat­i­cally that the pro­ceed­ings are im­por­tant. He slows the movie down just when it needs to speed up, and we get more mu­si­cal in­ter­ludes.

God­dard has a weird prob­lem. He has an ad­vanced abil­ity to say things, but he has noth­ing to say. Time will tell whether he has noth­ing to say, in gen­eral, or noth­ing to say on this one oc­ca­sion. But the di­rec­to­rial tal­ent is there. Now if he can just be per­suaded to let some­one else write the script next time, we might have some­thing se­ri­ous to talk about.

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