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'Bad Times at the El Royale' loses its focus, fun late

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    Chris Hemsworth in a scene from 'Bad Times at the El Royale.'

    20th CENTURY FOX

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    Dakota Johnson from 'Bad Times at the El Royale.'

    20th CENTURY FOX

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

    20th CENTURY FOX

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    Chris Hemsworth from 'Bad Times at the El Royale'

    20th CENTURY FOX

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Bad Times at the El Royale opens to an unfolding mystery. A well-dressed man walks into his hotel room and closes the door. He methodically takes apart the room to hide something, then methodically puts everything in the room back as he found it.

Things don't end well for the man, of course, and years later, his actions in that room will affect seven strangers when they visit the same hotel on what becomes the proverbial dark and stormy night.

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Writer-director Drew Goddard’s (The Cabin in the Woods) mash-up of Quentin Tarantino and the Twilight Zone is rich with such curious and odd moments: chewy dialogue, eccentric characters haunted, by poor decisions, poor luck, and sometimes both, bloodshed! (with an exclamation point), and a narrative folded into itself like a burrito.

There will be sinister motives and violence all around, and the possibility of restitution and redemption.

The central characters are Laramie (Jon Hamm), a fast-talking vacuum salesman; Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a traveling priest with an affinity for the worldly; Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a struggling Motown singer; Emily (Dakota Johnson), a profane and take-charge hippie chick; and Miles (Lewis Pullman), the hotel’s clerk, bellboy, and everything else. Goddard’s characters prove to be more interesting than what happens to them.

The two other main characters, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a pretty boy cult leader, and Rose (Cailee Spaeny), one of his young devoted followers, each appear later in the film and change some of the story if not the narrative entirely.

Trailer: Bad Times at the El Royale

But it turns out that none of it really matters.

Bad Times at the El Royale's set-up, “seven desperate strangers with secrets and dark pasts intersect at a dying motel near Lake Tahoe,” is really just a long journey to nowhere special. The film is two hours and 20 minutes, which means it’s really 20 minutes too long.

The film is set in the late 1960s — about a decade after the mystery man in the opening scene. The era is germane to the story for historical reasons, character backgrounds, and as an excuse to dress up the El Royale, a once-swanky hotel with the unique distinction of straddling both sides of the Nevada-California state line, in a groovy post-modern decor. The presence and character of the hotel, with its own twists and dark secrets, is visceral enough that it feels like a silent member of the cast.

Bridges has some kind of fun as the whiskey-fueled priest who could use some confession time of his own. He has a dry wit and a clever sense of others. Father Flynn is easy to trust, which in this place means he probably can’t be.

Erivo, an established theater actress making her film debut in Bad Times at the El Royale, has a strong screen presence as the kindly Sweet, who was forced to learn how to take care of herself. Sweet and Father Flynn are the most interesting of the characters, so it’s not surprising that they have some terrific moments together.

Hamm and Johnson both come on strong with their characters for important reasons, we learn later. It’s the opposite for Pullman as Miles, a character whose past is saved for the end. In Bad Night at the El Royale , everyone has a past, or, in the case of Billy Lee and Rose, a troubling present. Hemsworth, as a Charles Manson-type, has the hippy part down: He parades around the screen mostly shirtless and shoeless as he doles out advice that later becomes more like commands to his followers. Billy Lee is supposed to be evil, the Devil as a handsome blue-eyed man with muscles to spare. But Hemsworth is so hippy-dippy with the role it’s hard to take the evil seriously.

Billy Lee doesn’t arrive until late in the film, and essentially takes over the hotel and the screen. And that’s when Bad Times at the El Royale loses its focus and peculiar sense of fun.

Goddard has us up until then, and then he botches the whole point of this exercise with an underwhelming punch line that is essentially, “Charles Manson on parade.”

Contact Kirk Baird at: kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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