Guess it had to happen sometime, but it’s a shame that the previously-thought-to-be inexhaustible energy resource of Edgar Wright’s omnivorous, giddy cinephilia should finally be showing signs running out right now, just when a jaded, weary, pandemic-drab world could use it most. Don’t get me wrong: with its dual-timeline gimmick and its evident love for the pastichey recreation of London in the Swinging Sixties decorating a coming-of-ager that becomes a fish-out-of-water drama that morphs into a murder-mystery that then turns into a slasher-horror, “Last Night in Soho,” which premiered today at the Venice Film Festival, boasts as ambitious a genre-melding concept as Wright has ever fielded. It is led by two of the brightest and most appealing actresses of their generation, in Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy. And it is shot in a now semi-trademark saturated, popping-neon palette by Park Chan-wook‘s regular cinematographer, Chung Chung-hoon, whose images lend a glossy, lacquered finish, especially to those glitzy, ritzy and eventually sleazy period sequences. But given all that it’s got going for it – and it has Taylor-Joy descending a night club staircase in a pink halterneck swing-hem dress and sashaying across a dancefloor while Cilla Black croons “You’re my World,” which is not nothing – why the hell isn’t it more fun?
The chief culprit is Wright’s screenplay, co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Oscar-nominated for “1917“), which is bafflingly bereft of his usual quips and banter, his usual wonky heart. But then, in the past, those qualities have always sprung from his characters: usually clueless but good-natured doofus dudes put into extraordinary situations and forced to sink or swim, who more often flail around amusingly for a bit before bumbling toward some sort of romantic or bromantic success. Here, his lead character hasn’t much in the way of actual character and still less of a sense of humor, which is definitely disappointing given that it just so happens to coincide with this being the first time Wright has made a film in which the protagonist is female.
Instead of an actual personality, Ellie (McKenzie, somehow underused despite being in every scene) is given a tragic past (her mom killed herself when she was seven), a big ambition (to be a famous fashion designer) and a weird quirk (she has highly vivid visions of the past – often of her mute mother hanging around behind her reflection in a mirror). Oh, and she’s obsessed by the ’60s, to the point that early on – given that her bedroom is bedecked in pictures of Twiggy and posters of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Sweet Charity” and that she dances around to a portable record player playing crackly vintage pop – we might think it actually is the ’60s – at least until she grabs her digital alarm clock and sticks on her Beats by Dre headphones on the train on the way to London. She has just been accepted into fashion college in the big city, and, despite the concerns of her doting grandmother, is heading there with all the optimism of the archetypal wide-eyed naif high on the romantic conviction that fame and success are just around the corner.
Once there, however, her hopes are quickly dashed. Her roommate Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen) – who incidentally would have made a much more interesting protagonist in a much spikier, funnier film – is an entitled Regina George nightmare dripping with designer duds and disdain for Ellie’s home-made pinafore outfit, and Ellie immediately decides to move out. Conveniently, there’s a somehow affordable bedsit advertised nearby that she snaps up from forbidding landlady Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg), and even more conveniently, there’s a job available in the one Soho bar she’s ever visited, which she also gets as soon as she asks for it. There’s even an Interested Boy on the horizon in the shape of John (Michael Ajao), a classmate who is respectful, good natured, clean-cut and apparently almost as much of a drip as Ellie herself. But from the first night in her new garret apartment, when Ellie falls asleep under the colored lights of the neighboring bistro sign, she is transported back in time to the same area in the 1960s, when living in her room was a girl named Sandie (Taylor-Joy), herself a new arrival, whose even wider eyes are filled with confidence and flirtatious bravado and dreams of being “the next Cilla Black.”
The giant “Thunderball” poster bedecking the movie theater nearby puts it at 1965, and for a time Ellie is thrilled that her desire to experience London in the 1960s, albeit vicariously through the dazzling Sandie (who cannot, apparently, see Ellie back), has come true. As she attends college by day, her designs become inspired by the clothes Sandie wears, and she even changes her hair color and buys an expensive vintage jacket to look more like her new idol. But soon Ellie’s nocturnal hangouts in seedy mid-’60s Soho take on a dark edge as Sandie gets mixed up with a bad lot (Matt Smith) and her dreams of stardom start to tatter into a much more tawdry reality. Meanwhile, Now That’s What I Call Swinging London Vols. I-IV plays on the soundtrack.
What are the rules, exactly, of Ellie’s supernatural abilities? How is it that the night after she first meets Sandie in the ’60s, it’s the same exact next night in Sandie’s life, but a day or two later for Ellie, several weeks seem to have passed for Sandie? If the film had remained a simple exploration of a lonely girl’s literal escape into the past – or if it had committed to being the quasi-feminist reclamation project it teases later on – perhaps the actual logical mechanics of its central twist wouldn’t matter so much. But as it turns into a murder mystery (could the sinister man, played by talisman of ’60s London Terence Stamp, be mixed up in it somehow?) and then takes a swerve into horror territory influenced equally by Hammer hauntings and giallo slashings – right down to a reflection of terrified eyes in the bloodied blade of a knife – the lack of consideration given to the plot starts to grate.
The recycling of old tropes is nothing new for Wright, but in “Last Night in Soho” they feel perfunctory for the first time. In his Cornetto trilogy, in “Scott Pilgrim,” and even in “Baby Driver,” Wright made a point of lovingly lampooning generic cliches, co-opting and subverting them with playful inventiveness. Here, especially in this overlong film’s flabby middle third, we just get endless chase sequences, endlessly repeated shots of Ellie – at the end of another torrid time-traveling nightmare – waking up by sitting up bolt upright in bed, or walking into the road in a daze that’s only broken when a car screeches to a halt an inch away and the driver cusses her out. You know, things that no one does in real life but people do in the movies all the time? It’s the first time Wright hasn’t sent up such clichés but lapsed into them, with the result that the film stays on the surface of both of its timelines, and never gets beneath the skin of the city it was designed to glorify for both its sordid history and shiny promise. “London can be a lot,” says just about every side character at some point or another to Ellie. But in “Last Night In Soho,” it is also, weirdly, not enough. [C]