‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Invites You to Peel Back its Many Layers

Bad Times at the El Royale poster

Bad Times at the El Royale” is one of those movies I have really come to deeply admire as it is like an onion you keep peeling at continually to see what’s underneath. Just when I thought I knew where things were heading, the story heads in another direction to where what we were initially introduced to is not all what it seems. As Bo Diddley once sang, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover, and while this movie’s poster tells us what we need to know before going into the theater, there is more to discover than we could ever anticipate.

The El Royale of the movie’s title is a hotel which, at one time, was one a glorious place to visit, but it has since fallen into disrepute. The first sequence shows a man entering a room there, digging beneath its surface to play a bag of money beneath it. He is later greeted by another man who he kindly welcomes in, but who quickly shoots him dead with a shotgun. It’s a wonderfully elaborate sequence which brings us into a motion picture which promises not to be the usual mainstream fare.

We then move to 10 years later when a number of visitors arrive at the El Royale to stay for a night or two. They include the kindly priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), aspiring singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), vacuum cleaner salesman Dwight Broadbeck (Jon Hamm), and a young hippie named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). All of them are greeted by the hotel’s concierge and apparently its only employee, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who gleefully illustrates the location’s history and amenities for all of those willing to hear him out.

Revealing more from here would spoil one too many surprises as we discover not everyone is who they appear to be, but I can tell you the characters soon find themselves on a road to hell as their sins rise to the surface for everyone around them to see. In one way or another, everyone is either trying to escape their past or reclaim it in a way which offers no promises, and not everyone is going to make it out of their predicament in one piece.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” was written and directed by Drew Goddard who wrote the screenplays for the highly-entertaining “Cloverfield,” “World War Z” and “The Martian,” the one Ridley Scott movie in recent years which we can all agree on (in that it was great). Goddard also wrote and directed the horror comedy “The Cabin in the Woods,” a movie I should have seen already, but anyway. He composes this movie in vignettes just as Quentin Tarantino composes his with chapters out of a novel. Each one allows us to learn more about the characters and what brought them to this once glorious resort. The question is, do they all know about the valuables buried beneath one of the rooms?

I enjoyed how Goddard kept peeling away at each of these characters’ identities as we learn more about them in ways which are both illuminating and shocking, and it kept me guessing as to where things were going to go next. There’s even a scene of shocking violence involving a wine bottle which just comes out of nowhere, and it slammed me back into my seat in a way such a scene has not in recent years.

The movie, however, does suffer as it goes on. You should have heard the collective gasp from the audience at the press screening I attended when they were told the running time would be two hours and 21 minutes. Most Hollywood studios these days would never dare to let one of their releases last more than 90 or 100 minutes, so the amount of freedom Goddard got here seems astonishing in retrospect.

I have nothing against movies which last over two hours as long as they are able to justify their length. It is far too easy for a filmmaker to become self-indulgent. In retrospect, “Bad Times at the El Royale” could have used some tightening in the editing room as the story slowly drags towards its conclusion which involves a charismatic cult leader named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth, taking a much-needed break from the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and his much-too devoted follower, Rose (the wonderfully possessed Cailee Spaeny). By the time we finally arrive at the ending, it feels like everything is concluding on the wrong note. This could have been an even more frustrating ending than the one in “The Matrix Revolutions,” but saying so is a little too punishing.

Still, there is much to admire here such as the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, the terrific set and art direction and, of course, the great cast that tears into their roles with great gusto. Jeff Bridges continues to remain one of our finest actors as he inhabits his role of Father Daniel Flynn in a way few others could. Cynthia Erivo proves to have quite the vocal chops here as her singing left the audience I saw this movie with in almost total silence. Dakota Johnson, finally freed from those god-awful “Fifty Shades of Grey” movies, gets to show an enigmatic side of her acting that makes it clear how we have no business dismissing her as just another pretty face. As for Jon Hamm, he is as charming as ever, and watching him hustle the other characters almost effortlessly makes me believe he will be the next Batman.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a flawed movie, but for me, its strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses. I am curious to see how audiences end up reacting to this as it is coming out in a cinematic time dominated by superheroes. Goddard’s film definitely stands outside the norm, but my hope is audiences will take the time to discover something a little different from what they are used to.

Whatever you think of “Bad Times at the El Royale,” you have to admit it allows Jeff Bridges to utter one of the best lines of dialogue in recent years:

“Shit happens… Get the whiskey.”

* * * out of * * * *

Keeping Up With The Joneses

keeping-up-with-the-joneses-poster

When a movie takes its title from a tagline used to promote “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” I can’t help but walk into it with high expectations. Indeed, “Keeping Up with the Joneses” boasts a plot which quickly reminded me of “True Lies” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” in which government spies disguise themselves as ordinary suburban residents, and it has a cast of actors who you can always count on to give you a fun time. It’s even directed by the man who gave us “Superbad” and “Adventureland,” Greg Mottola. But while it does have some inspired moments, “Keeping Up with the Joneses” ends up feeling, to put it bluntly, half-assed.

We meet Jeff Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis) who works at a corporate office as a human resources director. He is happily married to Karen (Isla Fisher), and they have two children who, as the movie starts, are heading off to summer camp for a few weeks. For the first time in years, the Gaffneys have the whole house to themselves which has them thinking of all kinds of mischief to get into, but any plans they have for getting naughty are interrupted when a new couple moves into the neighborhood.

Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot) are not your usual couple as they look as if they have traveled all over the world, and they look far too gorgeous to pass as ordinary people. As a result, the Gaffneys get overly suspicious and are eager to learn everything there is to know about them. It doesn’t take long, however, to realize they are spies, but whether they are foreign or domestic spies remains to be seen.

“Keeping Up with the Joneses” gets off to a strong start as we get a picturesque view of suburbia with the peaceful neighborhood these characters inhabit. As the camera pans around the different houses, one of them blows up into smithereens, and the explosion almost feels like something out of a Kathryn Bigelow movie. Next thing you know, the story moves back to two weeks before the explosion, so we already know this peaceful neighborhood won’t be very peaceful for much longer.

The great things about the movie is the cast. Galifianakis gets to play a different role this time around as Jeff Gaffney is not like the mentally unstable characters he became famous for playing like in “The Hangover.” Seeing him play a down to earth guy who is all about family and good times feels like a stretch for him, and it’s fun watching him opposite Hamm especially when they have lunch at an underground restaurant which is definitely not for vegans.

Hamm gets to play on his sexy guy image, and he is well matched with Gadot who looks very comfortable in the action comedy genre. Isla Fisher has been great fun to watch in any movie she appears in ever since her scene-stealing turn in “Wedding Crashers,” and she doesn’t disappoint here. There’s also a nice pair of performances from Matt Walsh and Maribeth Monroe as a pair of neighbors who might be getting a little to nosy in everyone’s affairs.

But as terrific as this cast is, they are not enough to save this movie which runs out of inspiration very quickly. It would have been more fun if the director and screenwriter kept us guessing as to whether the Joneses really were spies or not. Looking back, I kept thinking everyone missed out on various opportunities to make this movie cleverer than it is. This could have been an uproarious comedy had more effort been put into the script. After a while, we know how things are going to turn out for the four main characters here, and it just reminds us of other movies like it which were much, much better.

When the movie reaches its conclusion, it’s sunk by a predictability everyone could have avoided for the benefit of the audience. What we are left with is a premise which everyone could have and should have had a lot more fun with. The characters, despite the best efforts of the actors, could have been better developed to where they don’t feel like caricatures. The action scenes are fun, but you feel like they could have been more thrilling. Instead of accepting the movie for what it is, we keep thinking about the movie it could have been, and realizing this is depressing.

“Keeping Up with the Joneses” is one those films I analyze endlessly as I watch it because I am convinced I could have done a better job with the material. This premise could have been taken in a number of different directions and could have ended up being an insane amount of fun. But we get instead is a motion picture which have spent more time in the development phase because this one came out of the oven far too soon. It has its moments, but it could have had a lot more of them.

* * out of * * * *