It’s difficult to mistake “Bad Times at El Royale” for anything other than a Quentin Tarantino lovefest.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?
Only if it’s consistently good and enjoyable. "Bad Times" isn’t.
Director Drew Goddard, who brought audiences the creepy “Cabin in the Woods” in 2012, makes a valiant effort to put his twist on film conventions that have become familiar since the arrival of “Pulp Fiction.”
What ensues is a hodgepodge of characters who show up in 1969 at a motor lodge that's half in Nevada and half in California. Some things you can do in Nevada, but not in California, and vice versa.
The problem with those characters: Not all of them are particularly interesting. Goddard, who also wrote the film, could have easily jettisoned a couple of storylines and reconfigured the plot and had something far more entertaining.
While the film gives top billing to Marvel Studios’ Thor, Chris Hemsworth, his part is small with respect to screen time, although pivotal to the proceedings.
His character, a free-love Svengali with delusions of grandeur, is far less interesting than others. The saving graces here: Tony Award-winning Cynthia Erivo as Darlene Sweet, a struggling singer who shows up at the motel on her way to a gig in Reno, and Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges as Father Daniel Flynn, a priest with a secret.
John Hamm shows up as Laramie Seymour Sullivan, an alleged vacuum cleaner salesman.
For good measure, there's a squirrelly hotel clerk and a flower child (Dakota Johnson) who arrives scared and with a bad attitude.
Yes, each and every one of these characters presents a mystery and is an enigma. Normally, peeling back the layers to learn who they are would be part of the charm of a film such as “El Royale.”
As presented, however, Erivo’s singer and Bridges' priest offer the best backstories, making up for a lot of what’s lacking in the film.
Erivo, possessing the voice of a vintage Anita Baker and acting chops to match, creates a character that’s an intriguing mix of vulnerability and strength. Much of her screen time comes working with Bridges, which allows them to create a strong bond and chemistry with one another.
Their performances provide the impression that Goddard was most comfortable with those portrayals in directing them.
As for the style on loan from Tarantino? Meh.
Having seen it so many times over the years, it’s a hit-or-miss proposition. While viewing each character’s backstory through a different lens serves its purpose, it also prolongs much of what hampers the film.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” has its charms. Whether you should go depends upon how much you appreciate two great performances among many, and a director’s willingness to borrow liberally.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ByGeorgeThomas