Director Edgar Wright’s transition from idiosyncratic indie goofball genius to Hollywood auteur has been as jarring as one of his patented quick cuts. Wright’s relationship to genre is a lot more parodic and disjointed than that of Tarantino or the Coen Brothers. As a result, when Wright stuffs his personal sensibility into a Hollywood suit, the results are either abortive (as when he was replaced on “Ant-Man") or underwhelming (“Baby Driver” was no “Shaun of the Dead”).
Director Edgar Wright’s transition from idiosyncratic indie goofball genius to Hollywood auteur has been as jarring as one of his patented quick cuts.
Wright’s new film “Last Night in Soho” is both about how uncomfortable he is with Hollywood’s conventions and an illustration of his failure to overcome them. Like his protagonist, Wright revels in the joy of his own irrepressible talent and individuality. Also like her, early promise, glamour and success sours into confusion and disappointment.
The film begins with small-town aspiring fashion designer and maybe psychic Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) getting into a prestigious London design school. Upon arriving in the big city, she finds her art school peers are intolerable, and abandons the dorms for a cute flat. The apartment was once the home of aspiring 60s singer Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), and Eloise starts to have dreams — and then waking visions — of traveling back in time to share the life of the former occupant. At first, Sandy’s wardrobe, swagger, confidence and sensuality inspire and ensnare Eloise. But soon all those mod hits turn dark and dissonant, a psychedelic soundtrack of despair.
The early scenes of Eloise transported back in time are among Wright’s most exhilarating set-pieces. Sandy and Eloise take each other’s places as they go-go around the dance floor and slide past multiple sparkling mirrors. Wright literally puts the audience in the film, as Eloise watches her other, superstar self live her every ambition. In one wonderful sequence, Eloise sits rapt in an empty theater while Sandy sings a stunningly sultry rendition of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” — a song that is itself about the rush of conquering the big city.
Inevitably, the big city soon gets its own back, and Sandy and Eloise in parallel descend into victimization, exploitation and maybe madness. Eloise breathlessly watching her second, fantasy self at first seems like the best daydream ever. But the doubling eventually starts to feel like self-alienation or dissociation, as she loses track of who she is.
The first scene of the movie shows Eloise looking in a mirror trying on different names (“Eloise Turner” “Ellie” “Ellie T.”) Later she changes her hairstyle to look more like Sandy, who also switches names with every drink a man buys her (“Alesandra,” “Alex,” “Lexi.”) Like Wright, the protagonists are trying to cut their selves into the shape of success, balancing individuality with what the market wants, searching for an identity that will make them a brand, instantly recognizable like all the other famous people.
Like Wright, the protagonists are trying to cut their selves into the shape of success, balancing individuality with what the market wants.
David Lynch examines similar themes of manufactured and shuffled individuality, and female-female obsession, in “Mulholland Drive.” That movie’s ambiguous, looping structure, though, refuses to fulfill the Hollywood narrative conventions and expectations it’s questioning. The film’s pathos, and its triumph, is that it’s too strangely divided to deliver on the Hollywood empowerment fantasy of success.
Wright is much more willing to be his own headlining double. Eloise cheerfully and guiltlessly steals Sandy’s dress designs for her own supposedly original fashion show. Similarly, Wright is happy enough to abandon his unique approach to storytelling along with the cast of homely character actors who populated his earlier films.
Unlike in “Scott Pilgrim,” fantasy sequences in “Last Night in Soho” are carefully labeled as such. Unlike in “Shaun of the Dead,” character arcs are neatly tied off; no one turns into the living dead with the gag being that you can’t tell the difference. In many ways, “Last Night In Soho,” with its retro London fashion obsessions, traditional star, and funky-but-not-too-funky touches, is closer in ambition and approach to Disney’s “Cruella” than to most of Wright’s back catalog.
Still, Wright can’t quite submerge himself. His individuality shines through in the film’s visual successes, but perhaps even more in its failures. The filmmaker’s obsessive genre mixing and parodic instincts fit uncomfortably into the new movie’s sober approach to trauma and plot.
Ghosts of sexually abusive johns are portrayed, with queasy inappropriateness, as the groaning, staggering corpses that populate Wright’s beloved zombie movies. The joke of sweet, everyday Englanders turning into slavering slasher-film killers was brilliantly funny in absurdist Wright movies like “Hot Fuzz” and “World’s End.” But dropping a similar twist into a supposedly serious and coherent narrative like “Soho” comes across as clumsy and manipulative.
“Last Night in Soho” feels like Edgar Wright imagining himself as a celebrated hitmaker and star — as Hitchcock, perhaps, or even Terence Young, whose James Bond film “Thunderball” appears prominently on a marquee. That vision isn’t quite convincing, though. Try as he may to artfully arrange his reflections, that’s not Wright in the mirror. If it were, maybe “Last Night in Soho” would be a better movie. But as Eloise and Sandy learn, you lose something when you become your dreams, or vice versa.