The El Royale is a kitsch-a-rama hotel near Lake Tahoe. It’s Populuxe minus the luxe. It straddles the Nevada-California state line. Rooms on the California side cost a dollar more. Cute, no?
The place has seen better days, and even better nights. The Nevada side lost its gaming license a year ago. So things are pretty slow on a rainy Monday in 1969 when several guests show up. Each has big plans, few of them on the level. Everyone has something to hide. Before the night is over we learn where all the hiding places are, and “Bad Times at the El Royale” plays with upsetting audience expectations like nobody’s business.
“I’ve seen all sorts of bad,” warns the desk clerk, Miles (Lewis Pullman). As Jeremy Irons famously says in “Reversal of Fortune,” “You have no idea.” Before the movie’s over, we certainly will.
One of the new guests is a priest. Miles urges him to stay elsewhere. “This is exactly where the Lord wants me,” the reverend says with just the sort of smile in his voice that Jeff Bridges, who plays him, is so good at conveying. Bridges, who turns 69 in December, is aging well. He clearly enjoys playing Father Flynn, though not as much as Jon Hamm enjoys playing an appliance salesman (or is he?). Hamm gets to use a Southern accent and wear a sportcoat so loud you can all but hear Don Draper gasping.
Music is important in “Bad Times.” A jukebox figures prominently in the story, as do (hmm) shotguns. Cynthia Erivo, as an aspiring singer, supplies the real-life vocalizing. She has the most winning presence in a movie full of losers. She also has a knockout voice, even if it sounds a lot more “American Idol” melismatic than Motown era. Dakota Johnson, as the other chief female, displays a not-so-nice case of the nasties. She has her reasons. One of them is in the trunk of her car. Another is double-barreled.
Drew Goddard, who wrote and directed, is clearly a talent. The director of “The Cabin in the Woods” (2012), he’s probably best known for his original script for “Cloverfield” (2008) and adapting “World War Z” (2013) and “The Martian” (2015). The first hour of “Bad Times” is very smooth. That’s good, otherwise the many surprises and quirks it has to offer would seem bumpy. Instead, everything feels assured — the camera doesn’t so much move as prowl — and the viewer is intrigued, even engaged, rather than confused.
Things head toward Reno, figuratively if not literally, in the final 80 minutes. Yes, “Bad Times” is, ahem, two hours and 20 minutes long. A general airlessness sets in, as a tendency to sleight-of-narrative hand devolves into post-Tarantino trickeration. There’s also rival-Tarantino violence. Much of that has to do with the arrival of a Charles Manson-like figure, albeit played by a very hunky Famous Actor. There are few hard and fast rules in writing screenplays. Perhaps one of them should be “Avoid Charles Manson-like characters at all costs.” Up to that point, “Bad Times” has been pretty good — more than pretty good, actually. But a line gets crossed. It isn’t the one between California and Nevada. It’s the one from “Bad” to worse.
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE
Written and directed by Drew Goddard. Starring Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Lewis Pullman. At Boston theaters and suburbs. 141 minutes. R (strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity).Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.