Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Four rooms


BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE

Not as bad as some folks say, but not nearly as good as it it ought to have been, Bad Times does enough right (despite doing what seems like even more wrong) that I'm willing to call it "good."  It's got atmosphere, and that'll do.

2018
Written and directed by Drew Goddard

Spoiler alert: mild
 

The thing about Bad Times at the El Royale is that it is, I think, a genuinely good movie—not a great one, but one that I don't know if I could identify a single serious problem with—that just so happens to be caught inside a ruinously bad attempt at playing with structure, one that its writer and director, Drew Goddard, grows tired of almost the minute he starts applying it, and which makes the film, every time it crops up, quite a great deal worse than it has any right being.

So: Bad Times, set in or around the year 1969, tells the story of an especially macabre night at the titular hotel, built directly upon the border of California and Nevada and each half of it themed appropriately, and once not long ago a happening place for all manner of luminaries who found themselves on the road from Los Angeles east toward Las Vegas and Reno, but which has now passed its moment in the sun, its Nevadan half no longer a licensed gaming establishment, and the whole place manned by a skeleton crew of just one desk clerk—slash baretender slash custodian slash everything else (Lewis Pullman)—who, despite his multiple responsibilities, doesn't appear to actually expect any guests ever again, given how he's abandoned his post in the middle of the afternoon when four weary travelers simultaneously bear down on his kitschily bifurcated lobby.

In theory, however, Bad Times tells four stories, one for each of the guests to whom our clerk, Miles, eventually gets around to renting out a room: the story of Daniel Flynn, a priest with a secret (Jeff Bridges, though I choose to ignore this movie's attempt to butter me up by giving his character the same surname he had in TRON); the story of Laramie Seymour Sullivan, a vacuum cleaner salesman with a secret (Jon Hamm); the story of Emily Summerspring, a rude hippie with a secret (Dakota Johnson); and the story of Darlene Sweet, a soul singer who hasn't made it past back-up duties and predatory record company executives yet, and is ultimately marked as the lead by not having a secret (Cynthia Erivo).   These stories are all prefaced by the prologue, a single, unnervingly-static shot, punctuated by jump cuts, in which a mysterious man, ten years earlier, tore up the carpet and the floorboards, hid a bag in the hole he'd made, and painstakingly put everything right back in its proper place—whereupon he was rewarded by an equally mysterious associate who blows his guts out his back (and onto the camera) with a shotgun.  We can assume, therefore, that one or more of our guests is after whatever's under that floor; and things get even stranger, once we find out, through Seymour's poking around, that every room in the hotel is wired for sound and fitted with a trick mirror, behind which there is a long, dark corridor, and a camera ready to film whatever may happen on the other side.

In theory, these stories are separate, and while they'll obviously intertwine, with events in one seen from a different perspective in another, they are cordoned off in their own individual chapters, each presented with their own tasteful art deco title card: "Room Four," "Room Five," and so on, and it all seems to be set up to be very rigorous and very precise.  In practice, rigor and precision last about one half of one hour, at which point somebody dies, and Bad Times becomes pretty much a total free-for-all that occasionally jumps about in time, and occasionally jumps about in space—incredibly, one of those title cards bears the name "Washington, D.C.", even though it's just a phone call to D.C.—and, whenever the movie feels like it, it goes for flashbacks, of wildly varying length (some are five minutes long, some are literal single-shot flashes that barely register their subjects) but all of equal narrative benefit (zero), notably the one that explicates the nature of the particular form of bad time Emily's running from, who for unclear reasons gets a personal title card, even though he's not a place, but a man, "Billy Lee" (Chris Hemsworth).

And this fucks Bad Times up to the point where the film becomes far less than the sum of its parts, which are, taken one at a time, usually pretty good.  In part, this is simply because it makes it longer, and at 141 minutes that are obviously in no hurry to get anywhere, this is an example of a filmmaker turning what's a strength on the level of any individual scene into an acute problem for the movie as a whole; in part, it's because it takes us out of the hotel, which is an excellent setting, well-appointed yet somehow bleak, almost supernatural in its evocation of a bygone age of mod debauchery that, in the period of the movie, has only just died out, and therefore whenever we leave it's like someone turned the movie's pressure release valve on; in part, it's because not one single character, save perhaps Darlene, benefits from having their backstory overexplained; but, mostly, it's just because it's so unbelievably, contemptuously fucking sloppy about it.

Bad Times has gotten the rap of being a Tarantino rip-off.  I'd be willing to be more charitable about that, since Tarantino is not nearly as current as he was when every fourth movie was a Tarantino rip-off.  It's a little weird to describe something as "neo-Tarantinian" instead, when Tarantino is still a working filmmaker (working at this very moment, in fact, on a movie set in the exact same period in more-or-less the same place, with likely very similar characters and the same kind of thematic payoff); but I guess you could call Bad Times that, if you wished.  It certainly takes no pains not to tempt the comparison with Pulp Fiction; there are an infinite number of names for a hotel Goddard could have used. He chose the one tied to the Tarantino film's most famous line anyway.

It's bad Tarantino, though, or at least inconsistent Tarantino, the way Goddard just lets his structure, which initially seems to be the whole point of his movie, crumble away, with nothing he does with it any more interesting than just telling the whole damned tale straightforwardly, and with those title cards knifing in, long after the game's been up, reminding you that you're dealing with someone who thinks you're stupid and easily pleased.  For that matter, Goddard never evinces nearly the same facility with dialogue, let alone the way Tarantino's circular dialogue, usually hiding something sinister, tends to ramp up the tension, rather than diverting from it; Bad Times is sometimes clever, sometimes evocative, but nothing like that.  Anyway, it's actually a lot more old-fashioned than just the 1990s.  While it's sold as a neo-noir, it's not really that much of a noir, "neo" or otherwise; it could've been made in 1969, without (at least once you accounted for the blood and swearing) drawing too much attention to itself.  This, in fact, is a small problem already, given that Bad Times is very much up its own ass with themes, particularly the one that breaks his way into the movie in its third (or fifteenth, or whatever) act at the head of his creepy Mansonesque cult.  This does finally make something out of the liminal metaphor that Martin Whist's production design has been pushing since the first shot of the El Royale's lobby—it's about the death of the 60s at the hands of 70s, and the twisted evil of California, which obliges Nevada to be a symbol of good, which I'm not sure works out very well if you think about it too hard—but Bad Times is unwilling to either lean into the trashy fun of its scenario or the sheer-hell nihilism it keeps dancing around.  (There's a very late and poorly foreshadowed reveal about Miles that looks, for a second, like Bad Times is going to get incredibly trashy, in a transcendent way, but it whiffs it, and turns it into the same old bullshit about 'Nam.)  It's a fundamentally safe movie, is what I'm saying, which is a weird and somewhat unsatisfying thing for a movie that's about what Bad Times is about to be.

Still, it is not, you know, a bad time itself, though God knows there's way too much of it.  Indeed, one admires and often even enjoys Goddard's confidence: those flashbacks are shit, and the four rooms (oh, another Tarantino) structure is shit, but any given scene set in the present is likely to be reasonably excellent, given all the room it needs to breathe until it sucks all the air out of the place—Seymour's mostly-silent discovery of what lay beyond his room's gaudy interior design winds up in a lateral tracking shot across a series of voyeuristic frames-within-the-frame that I think De Palma would be proud of, though he might've been prouder still if there'd been more skin or sleaze in it.  The characters themselves are usually fun: Hamm's Seymour is a great bit of stunt-casting, and a mild blast as an overwrought glad-hander (with a secret, recall); Bridges' priest (with a secret) represents the actor playing somebody that's neither Rooster Cogburn nor the Dude in what seems like an age, and while the movie simply isn't designed for you to have feelings one way or another about the tragic underpinnings of Daniel's character, it's a technically adept performance of a man undergoing such a tragedy; Johnson's Emily, as in Suspiria, makes for a good steely-eyed enigma, and I actually think I might've liked the movie more when this woman (with a secret) was the villain.

Above all is Erivo's Darlene (as I remarked while watching it, "Is it racist that Darlene doesn't have a compromising backstory?"), but, whatever else Bad Times is or isn't, it doesn't waste the stage actor here the way her other breakout this year, Widows, wasted her along with 80% of the rest of its cast.  Of course, if Erivo gets priority, it's mainly because Darlene is the vector by which the film gets to deploy a good half-dozen soul standards, typically in a very downbeat and mournful register.  Erivo's got a fine voice, and Goddard does some fine things with those songs she sings, to the point that even though what I suppose must be the centerpiece sequence of the film (Darlene singing in order to distract from another action just out of sight) doesn't really seem to have too much logic in reference to the external story, it has so much tension and internal, emotional logic—by captivating a would-be assassin with a siren song—that you don't really care that much.  Bad Times at the El Royale is all like this: a nice yarn with a few really excellent scenes, strung along with the merely good scenes, and interspersed with distracting, lousy, unnecessary flashbacks (Miles' is the absolute pits, though I think Emily's remembrances of Billy Lee's Sunshine People do the most damage by prematurely unveiling his looming threat), and all of them set inside a completely irrelevant and actively annoying structure that implodes on itself practically before the movie's even started.  Well, still: the former's enough compensation for the latter for me, and I have to say I liked it.  Even if I'm sure I'll like it a lot more when it's called Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Score: 7/10

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