You really do have to salute Bad Times at the El Royale for its bravery: not every film would run the risk of just up and putting "bad times" right there in the title. So impressed am I, in fact, that I'm going to dignify the film by not making any of the obvious jokes, like "Bad Times? The worst!" or "They sure are!" or "More like Shit Times at the El Shit".

Anyway, some of the times are good, as would almost half to be the case when you put this many talented actors into a film with this many scenes stretched across this much running time. Bad Times at the El Royale is 141 minutes long, and by no means inclined to hurry through those minutes. It takes place in what's probably 1969, in a hotel/motel on the border between California and Nevada near Lake Tahoe - directly on the border, such that guests are allowed to take a room in either state (California rooms are $1 more). Until recently, the El Royale was a much in-demand hot spot, but lately times have been tough, and it's a deeply motley crew that arrives this afternoon for rooms: Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), cleaning supplies salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), nightclub singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), and grumpy hippie Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). The four are checked in by the hotel's sole employee, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), and the stage is set for a twisty night of revelations and bloodshed; for it turns out that three of the guests are lying about their identities, and one of those lies means that a certain Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), the leader of a messianic cult back in L.A., is making a beeline for the El Royale.

To dig into the backstory of each of these colorful figures, Bad Times writer/director Drew Goddard takes a page from the work of Quentin Tarantino - many, many, many pages, in fact, but the one I have in mind right at the moment is that the film breaks down into chapters, one each named for the room that one of the characters plans to sleep in. Initially, these chapters run concurrently, so that we see the end of the afternoon and the beginning of the night play out multiple time from different perspectives, in a little bit of Tarantino-esque chronological shuffling, plus flashbacks explaining why each character ended up at this shitty hotel in the middle of nowhere. This little bit of narrative complication doesn't end up doing much of anything; it's just a fancy, one that has long since been abandoned by the end of the film - really even by the middle. Take out the segment centered on Jon Hamm's character, and very nearly all of the structural gamesmanship goes with it. This lack of any follow-through means that the structural juggling merely makes the film a bit messy and misshapen, without any particular yield - it's neither interesting nor does it add any kind of new insight into the material.

That being said, the stories have a certain colorful pulpy charm, and the performances are largely strong - Bridges is doing something besides another craggy, crabby Southerner for the first time in what feels like years, playing a brusque father figure sort, and successfully underselling the character's tragic dimensions; Hamm is great fun as a nebbish pretending to be a cartoon character, and it's a pity the film doesn't see fit to give him more screentime. As pretty much everybody agrees by now, the standout is Erivo, a stage veteran who's having her big "welcome to the movies" season this year; she's playing the only genuinely recognisable human character in the film's assortment of zanies, which gives her a leg up right from the start, but she does good things with the role even so.

The film also looks pretty neat, eschewing most of the stock signifiers of the '60s: the sets can't avoid that, of course, but the cinematography, by Seamus McGarvey, goes in a substantially different direction. The film is full of striking colored lighting, not indicating the neon-soaked Vegas hues we might think to associate with the setting, but rather a sort of hell-on-earth vibe of unnatural colors. The high levels of grain (the movie was shot on celluloid film stock, to its considerable benefit) add a veil of roughness that reads as a form of realism, bringing physical ugliness into the glossy, colorful world of the film.

For all that, the film is a terrible drag. While I've mentioned that there's an enjoyable pulp quality to the movie, the movie itself seems to be largely unaware of this. Indeed, it's downright serious, attempting very sober-minded considerations of 1960s culture from the Civil Rights Movement to the Charles Manson cult to the Vietnam War, and doing a pretty awful job of treating any of those with something like intellectual rigor. Which is annoying enough, and then there's the additional matter that all this gravity means that Goddard refuses to treat this material like the high-energy trash it wants to be.

Or high-energy anything. If there's one overriding characteristic of Bad Times at the El Royale, it's that it is a sluggish march, running a good 40 minutes longer than it has any reason to do. Mostly the last 40 minutes, which complete the film's steady progression from bright kitsch into severe, apocalyptic nihilism, and which also tighten the focus on the worst performances in the film (Johnson, and Cailee Spaeny as her wayward sister). Insofar as the movie is ever worth watching, it's mostly in the early going, when it has the most plates spinning and the most colorful sense of humor. The further along it goes, the more plots it discards (it doesn't really "resolve" all of them), the more bitter the humor turns, the more monotonous the visuals become. It's never optimal for a movie to be longer than it should be, but when the film gets worse at such an accelerated clip as Bad Times does in its final push, the running time becomes an active punishment. Add to that the inherent musty quality of a riff on '90s Tarantino films couched in a valentine to '60s pop culture, and there's basically nothing here to latch onto - just a big bloated film that wastes talented people on both sides of the camera in service to a muddled vision that's more about attitude than brains, and doesn't even have enough attitude to make that work.

(Full disclosure: I knew this film's producer in college and worked on a film he directed)