Thursday, July 20, 2017

The temptation to scold Edgar Wright

Rightly or wrongly, a director who leaves a movie before its completion can assume a certain "holier than thou" aspect. Sometimes directors get kicked off movies, which is no fault of their own. However, sometimes they cite the ever-popular "creative differences" and depart a movie on their own terms, and rightly or wrongly, this opens them up to scorn.

Warning: The following argument comes dangerously close to taking the side of The Man. But hear me out.

Certainly, you'd think that if Edgar Wright left Ant-Man, it was because Marvel Studios wanted to control him and fit him into a tiny artistic box that he didn't want to occupy. He had sprawling, rambling ideas that consisted of a type of genius that didn't jibe with their conception of the movie. Fine. Leave the movie, Peyton Reed will finish what you started with something halfway watchable (but pretty bland compared to what you would have done), the movie will be reasonably warmly received and everyone will go their merry way.

But I'd be lying if a small part of me didn't say "What, too good for Ant-Man, Edgar Wright?" Rightly or wrongly.

Because it's a bit inevitable to perceive someone who leaves a movie -- leaves, not gets fired from -- as having a bit of an inflated sense of their own self worth. Some would argue that this is a very reasonable estimation of their own worth, as any person should stand up for themselves and not just accept being the puppet of some studio. But there's a certain element of standing up for yourself that seems like rocking the boat. Movies are made by people who become inextricably linked with one another despite inevitable compromises in how they imagined things going, and if you're a good soldier you just grin and bear it.

Wright wasn't a good solder, and some people would celebrate him for that.

I did, sort of, while also wondering what terrific use of his talents he was saving himself for. What thing would be worth not sullying his name or reputation by having a credit on an imperfect realization of his vision for Ant-Man.

The answer is: He was saving himself for Baby Driver.

Which makes it all the more disappointing.

I don't dislike Baby Driver, but let's say that in just 24 hours since I finished watching it, I have already rounded my 3.5-star rating down to three stars and am thinking of going lower. The movie doesn't stand up to even a little bit of scrutiny, and it's not even all that great when you don't scrutinize it.

But I don't want to litigate the strengths and weaknesses of Baby Driver in this post, though I could go on at length with nits to pick and parts that annoyed me, especially in the last 30 minutes. (And for a guy who prizes his own vision for a film, he felt awfully like he was channeling Quentin Tarantino in this movie, didn't he?)

Instead I'd like to concentrate on how Baby Driver is burdened by being an alternative choice to Ant-Man, though in reality, it likely would have been his next movie with or without the MCU film in his filmography.

If Baby Driver had just followed on the heels of The World's End, the 2013 Wright movie that I like even less than Baby Driver, it might have concerned me as a sign that a once-sharp filmmaker who made at least two bracingly original films (Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) was on a wayward path. But as is, it's what he's offering the world as proof of what he's capable of -- when someone isn't trying to pull his strings. With Baby Driver, Wright says to the world, "My shackles are off. Now watch me fly."

Or maybe, crash land.

In Wright's defense, he has established himself -- through no fault of his own, or to put it another way, "rightly or wrongly" -- as a creative talent from whom a lot is expected. He has a passionate cult of followers who worship his films. There's a lot of pressure on a person like that, a pressure to continually outdo yourself and be greater than you were last time. Even if only two of his now five features have actually earned him that kind of devotion.

So my under-appreciation of Baby Driver could just be a manifestation of my own frustrated expectations for the man's next work.

But I don't think so. I think I have had a love-hate relationship with Edgar Wright that is equally happy to be pushed in either direction. I look forward to his next film either because it will confirm he's great or confirm he's a hack, and I kind of don't care which. I can argue either narrative. (If you're wondering where the one film I haven't mentioned, Hot Fuzz, falls on the love-hate spectrum -- which is really a spectrum of "love" to "don't love that much" -- it's pretty much in the middle. I like it, but not overly.)

And I guess something about the Ant-Man debacle has kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Am I an apologist for a gigantic movie studio like Marvel, or to step out one level greater, like Disney? I don't think I am, but if I generally trust the things a company does -- and that's the case with Disney -- I do extend them a certain loyalty. I do think that someone should think of it sort of as an honor to be entrusted with a Disney product, and if they don't properly appreciate that opportunity, it's a them problem.

But still, had Baby Driver seemed like the inevitable next chapter in the cinematic universe inside Edgar Wright's brain, I would have been happy to argue his genius.

Instead, I'm yielding to that temptation to scold him.

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