The oft made argument about the current state of Hollywood and cinema as whole is that there’s a growing originality problem. As more sequels, reboots, recreations, etc. crop up, more people drone on about how lacking the movies are on an original idea and/or story. Indeed, outside of the indie movie circuit or streaming services like Netflix and HBO, it’s difficult to find something that isn’t being redone in some capacity.
Enter Edgar Wright – the director of such movies as Shawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and other quirky and fun films that span a twenty two-year directorial career. But the most interesting thing Wright has done, outside of making one of the single most fun and exhilarating movies of (probably) the last few years, was open up about his departure from his previous Marvel project Ant-Man.
“I think the most diplomatic answer is I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie. It was a really heartbreaking decision to have to walk away after having worked on it for so long, because me and Joe Cornish in some form—it’s funny some people say, ‘Oh they’ve been working on it for eight years’ and that was somewhat true, but in that time I had made three movies so it wasn’t like I was working on it full time. But after The World’s End I did work on it for like a year, I was gonna make the movie. But then I was the writer-director on it and then they wanted to do a draft without me, and having written all my other movies, that’s a tough thing to move forward thinking if I do one of these movies I would like to be the writer-director. Suddenly becoming a director for hire on it, you’re sort of less emotionally invested and you start to wonder why you’re there, really.”
That was Wright on Variety’s Playback podcast. What’s particularly interesting about this statement, aside from the fact that Wright is addressing something he’s previously been quite mum on, is the timing of it. Not necessarily because it seems as though both parties have moved on; Marvel’s Ant-Man saw a fair amount of success and the MCU is as popular as ever, and Wright’s Baby Driver is already getting wide acclaim from both critics and audiences. But rather, the timing in conjunction with two more directors “walking away” from another major studio project – Chris Miller and Phil Lord from the Han Solo standalone movie. I saw walking away in quotes because it’s very clear that the two were fired by the studio, with “creative differences” being the reason for the split (as it so often is in these cases). Which is probably what led Wright to being so open about his work with Marvel, and what led to him also walking away from a project that he’d worked on and off for nearly a decade.
And this points to a much larger problem not just with superhero movies and sci-fi epics like Star Wars, but really any big budget studio film – original storytelling and directing are becoming a lost art. Any studio that’s pouring money into a film has much less of a tendency to choose a director and rely on their skill set and abilities and is instead choosing to monitor and micromanage the filming process. This lack of freedom for the director can lead to obvious frustration and differences, and like Wright stated, make one “less emotionally invested”.
This isn’t always the case though, even with major Hollywood studios. James Gunn was given a lot of creative freedom on the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, both of which have been incredibly well-received. And Rian Johnson, who directed Looper, has said that he’s enjoyed the creative freedom he’s been given on Star Wars: Episode VIII (though he’s also made it clear that his vision and Disney’s lined up almost from the start, which should be noted). But there are plenty of cases outside of the Wright and Miller/Lord that show what happens when a studios meddling has less than desirable results.
So then, how is the original movie that Wright opted to make once he had walked away from Ant-Man? How is Baby Driver?
Well, for starters it’s refreshingly original. Wright’s movies have always taken a genre and spun them a specific way, and Baby Driver is no exception. Where Shawn of the Dead was a comedic satire of the Zombie apocalypse story, Baby Driver is a heist movie that feels as though the movie’s veins are pumped full of adrenaline. There’s hardly a dull moment, due in part to Wright’s always-excellent cinematography, and also the manner in which the movie pumps its soundtrack through a scene.
And I suppose that’s where we should really start is the music of the film, because it’s so interwoven that not doing so would miss a major crux of the movie as a whole. It’s called Baby Driver after all, named after the Simon and Garfunkel song of the same name, and as the film moves and dances with the rhythms of its soundtrack, the viewer will find themselves doing the same. This also makes the pacing of the film erratic, but in entirely intended ways. One minute you’re slow-jamming to Easy by Lionel Richie and the Commodores and the next you’re gripping your seat to Brighton Rock by Queen. Other films have received some acclaim for their use of music and soundtrack as of late, like Guardians of the Galaxy, for example – Baby Driver blows them all out of the water.
The casting is fantastic. Ansel Elgort nails the silent and mysterious driver in ways that would make Ryan Gosling blush, and his chemistry with Lily James was much better than anticipated. Kevin Spacey is excellent, though his characterization changes somewhat in the third act in a way that I didn’t really buy all that much. Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx make for excellent villains, the former having a (admittedly slightly annoying) tendency to stick around and the latter making you hate him almost immediately. Jon Bernthal’s character is great, though if you’re going because you want to see the guy from The Walking Dead get lots of screen time, you’re going to leave very disappointed (if this is you, I’d question why you’re actually interested in this movie at all, actually).
Ultimately, Wright controls and choreographs Baby Driver so tightly that it’s hard to really relate to it, but that was never really the point. It plays more like a fever dream – two-hour adrenaline rush that quickly draws you in, whips you around in a tricked out red Subaru and then drops you off in your seat to walk out of the theater dazed, but feeling happier than when you walked in. It’s quick, quirky, colorful, and full of the usual qualities that Wright has built a career as a director on.
And above all it’s original, and one of the few films that I walked into knowing little about beforehand and out of feeling happy that someone had presented something new and relatively unknown to me and I was able to sit and watch and enjoy it without having to endure a bunch of trailers for other Sundance movies or sit on my couch and use Netflix to access it. (Though I really hope this hits Netflix one day, because I very much want to see it again.) Wright has proven before that he doesn’t need a big studio budget to make something that’s fun, original, and loved by critics and audiences. But beyond that, Baby Driver pushes the already wide boundaries of Wright’s known abilities – I knew that Wright could make a film with effortless cinematography and fantastic comedy interwoven into an action script, I didn’t know he could film car chases.
Drop another win into Wright’s very full bucket, and hope that he continues to make his own stories and ideas, or that any big studio that brings him into a project gives him full creative freedom. Lord knows we need more Edgar Wright movies in the world.