The hipster crime comedy perfected?

There’s nothing really novel about Bad Times at the El Royale, except that it resurrects a quasi-genre with panache.

Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale

It’s not very fashionable to admit this in 2018, but I would absolutely not be writing these words if it wasn’t for Quentin Tarantino. It’s not so much that his films were my favourites when I was starting to get interested in movies; it’s how his influence shaped what I even had available to me at that time. It’s hard to imagine now, but when all you had was a video store with a finite amount of space (and thus finite amount of films), a surprisingly large percentage of what was available drew directly from the popularity of Tarantino’s films. It’s insane to ponder, considering the films were hardly commercial juggernauts, but from 1993 to roughly 2001, the post-Tarantino hipster crime comedy was absolutely its own genre. It was inescapable. One of the five first DVDs I ever owned was John Herzfeld’s 2 Days in the Valley, a film notable for a) giving Charlize Theron her first role; b) probably not having been watched by anyone since the last time I watched that DVD in, oh, 2006.

I watched all of the Tarantino knock-offs, collabs, remakes, ripoffs and tentative homages. To me, they were a genre in themselves, just like slashers or rom-coms or deadly serious movies set in a submarine (another fecund ’90s genre). Some I still recall fondly. Most, I don’t recall at all. Many of them are considerably less than the sum of their parts — I’ll point to Chain of Fools, a 2000 film directed by a Swedish video collective (!) that stars Steve Zahn, Salma Hayek, Jeff Goldblum, Elijah Wood, David Cross and Tom Wilkinson yet sucks to the point of completely and utterly forgettable anonymity. This is a non-negligible swath of North American film culture that has completely passed by its sell-by date. Ubiquitous one day, they are now completely absent from the landscape. It’s weird imagine if they simply stopped making slasher movies?

Comparisons will inevitably be drawn between Bad Times at the El Royale and the works of Tarantino, though the film it mostly closely resembles in terms of setting is the unbelievably terrible anthology film Four Rooms, in which Tarantino signs the least-terrible of four terrible segments. These comparisons are accurate — it’s undeniable that a certain smarmy, self-satisfied streak of post-modern puppeteering runs through Drew Goddard’s riff on the genre.

Goddard shares and indulges in many of Tarantino’s excesses, including (but not limited to) fetishizing of ’60s and ’70s top 40 hits, flowery dialogue that does not sound even remotely like anything anyone has ever said out loud, short bursts of ultraviolence that ultimately feel more graphic in retrospect than they actually are, stunt-casting of iconic or easily recognizable performers in atypical roles and a love for the ever-present, ever-useful screen tactic of the Macguffin. Goddard is inventing absolutely nothing here, but he does take something into consideration that scores of Boogie Boys and The Last Days of Frankie the Flys didn’t: that aesthetics can sometimes fuel creativity, and vice-versa.

Chris Hemsworth in Bad Times at the El Royale

The El Royale is a resort hotel in Lake Tahoe, California, that saw its glory days in the mid-’50s as a place to see and be seen these. In 1967, it’s considerably more run-down, its art-deco glam having surrendered to dust and general shabbiness. It’s now run solely by bellhop Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), a neurotic youngster who launches into a preordained speech every time a customer walks in. Customers are few and far between, but on one night, six strangers join Miles: alcoholic and possibly senile priest Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), unctuous Southern vacuum salesman Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm) and bad-attitude hippie Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), whose presencel soon prompts the arrival of her young sister (Cailee Spaeny) and a shirtless hippie guru (Chris Hemsworth) with nefarious intentions. Everyone who shows up at the El Royale holds a secret they assume they’ll be able to keep; over the course of one night, they find out exactly how impossible that is.

Though stylistic pastiche looms large throughout the film’s generous 140-some-minute running time, Bad Times at the El Royale is significantly more deliberate than nearly every movie I’ve mentioned that it apes. It’s a methodically plotted film that unfolds layer by layer in a way that these movies rarely did, preferring instead some of the structural fuckery that was all the rage in the ’90s. Goddard isn’t immune to that; the film does indulge in some Rashomon-like sequences in which we see the same scene from several different vantage points that seriously puts a damper on things somewhere in the middle, but nevertheless he employs the tried-and-true conceits of the genre as a tool rather than an affectation. There’s some chaff here and there (it’s a good scene, but I don’t think the film really needs a 10-minute aside in which Xavier Dolan plays a venomous British record producer who chastises Erivo’s character) but it’s an obvious labour-of-love from a filmmaker who still seems to put being a writer first, a theory made stronger by his obsessive puzzle-box tendencies here.

Like his previous film The Cabin in the Woods, Goddard’s latest ultimately adds up to more than the sum of its parts. It’s not that the parts are bad, necessarily; all of the actors here (particularly Erivo and Bridges, who are the nominal leads of the thing) are very good, and the film doesn’t hit any major bum note besides being a little too long and a little too pleased with itself at times. But it’s also a movie that spends an inordinate amount of time setting up stuff that only serves to cloud your vision, a movie that takes its sweet ass time building things that it will destroy quickly and mercilessly. I honestly feel a little strange when I think about how much I enjoyed a movie that’s fundamentally one I’ve seen before. Part of the strength of Bad Times at the El Royale is that it trades on a familiarity while also very seldom relying on reference or outright pastiche. It’s a little late for it to be considered part of the movement, but if even a couple of the post-Tarantino stylistic exercises had been this good, maybe the genre wouldn’t have died out at all. ■

Bad Times at the El Royale opens in theatres on Friday, Oct 12. Watch the trailer here: