Wild times to be had at ‘El Royale’

Pawtucket Times - - FILM - By MICHAEL O’SUL­LI­VAN

The setup of “Bad Times at the El Royale” sounds fa­mil­iar, even cliche: Seven strangers, each with a skele­ton in the closet, find them­selves thrown to­gether at a ho­tel that has seen bet­ter days, and that it­self hides a se­cret – one that is re­vealed in the short, wham-bam pro­logue that sets the stage for this 1969-set film, which is part B-movie sendup, part noirish hy­brid of mys­tery and black com­edy, and all orig­i­nal.

The name of its writer and di­rec­tor, Drew God­dard, may not mean any­thing to some. But any­one who has seen God­dard’s only pre­vi­ous film, the meta-hor­ror movie “The Cabin in the Woods,” or who knows his work as a writer on such projects as “Lost,” “Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer” and the Os­car-nom­i­nated adap­ta­tion of “The Mar­tian,” will know to ex­pect the un­ex­pected.

Not all of its sur­prises are pleas­ant ones, but there is a cer­tain sat­is­fac­tion in ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a yarn that is so ob­sti­nately un-an­tic­i­pat­able.

Set in the tit­u­lar ho­tel, a Lake Ta­hoe-area lodge that strad­dles the Ne­vada-Cal­i­for­nia line, the ac­tion of the film takes place on a night when the front-desk clerk of the nor­mally god­for­saken inn (Lewis Pull­man) is sud­denly over­whelmed by a small scram­ble for rooms. A trav­el­ing vacuum-cleaner sales­man (Jon Hamm), a priest (Jeff Bridges), a lounge singer (Cyn­thia Erivo) and a hip­pie (Dakota John­son) – or four peo­ple who claim to be those things – show up at about the same time, lug­ging more metaphor­i­cal bag­gage than the real kind.

It sounds like the pre­lude to a joke. And in some ways it is one. With a Tarantino-es­que sound­track of vintage R&B and clas­sic pop-rock tunes play­ing over much of this soon-to-turn-lurid-and-bloody tale, the film feels (and sounds) at times like a par­ody of some­thing. But of what, it’s not ex­actly clear.

“Bad Times” is pe­riod-per­fect, with gor­geous pro­duc­tion de­sign (by Martin Whist) and a moody score (by Michael Gi­acchino), but it’s also a lit­tle too per­fect: a 21st-cen­tury wisen­heimer’s ap­pro­pri­a­tion – and re­ca­pit­u­la­tion – of an era that ap­pears more vivid and color­ful than the orig­i­nal ever was, be­cause it’s a fan­tasy.

Wo­ven into this fan­tasy, over a slightly over­long run­ning time, are nar­ra­tive threads in­volv­ing the Viet­nam War, a Man­son-like cult and the civil rights strug­gle. But God­dard never wields these themes to score dif­fi­cult so­ciopo­lit­i­cal points. Rather, he seems more in­ter­ested in the 1960s as an idea – a good-look­ing nar­ra­tive de­vice – rather than a real and tur­bu­lent time. It’s a beau­ti­ful pic­ture frame, sur­round­ing a lot of ug­li­ness and vi­o­lence.

More in­deli­ble even than the art di­rec­tion, how­ever, is the cast, which is headed up by Bridges in the kind of tough-but-ten­der per­for­mance he seems ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing with his hands tied be­hind his back (and, in fact, his char­ac­ter is bound in the film’s crazy cli­max, which lurches hither and yon, for bet­ter and for worse). Paired off against him is Erivo’s Dar­lene Sweet, a Reno songstress with the bluesy voice of a honky-tonk an­gel who is strug­gling to make it in the racist, sex­ist world of show­biz. Erivo, a 2016 Tony Award win­ner for the mu­si­cal “The Color Pur­ple,” is the film’s breakout star, mak­ing her up­com­ing role in “Wid­ows” even more of a must-see.

Chris Hemsworth, who also starred in God­dard’s “Cabin,” com­pen­sates for get­ting dis­patched rel­a­tively early in that film by show­ing up very late in the game here, in a darker role than fans of his “Thor” movies may know what to do with.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” cer­tainly goes places you wouldn’t pre­dict, but it’s not al­ways ev­i­dent why. Like the name­sake ho­tel, which boasts a red line run­ning through its lobby – one side the home state of Tin­sel­town, the other Sin City –“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a schizoid thing: ter­ri­bly, ter­ri­bly en­ter­tain­ing, and at times just a wee bit soul­less.

Three stars. Rated R. Con­tains strong vi­o­lence, strong lan­guage, some drug el­e­ments and brief nu­dity. 140 min­utes.

Kim­ber­ley French/Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury Fox

Jeff Bridges, left, and Cyn­thia Erivo in “Bad Times at the El Royale.”

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