I would be tempted to say that Last Night in Soho is the film with which director Edgar Wright proves that he needs somebody else to write his screenplays, but then, didn't we kind of already know that? Specifically, that he needs Simon Pegg to write his screenplays, or co-write them, anyway: the three Wright-Pegg collaborations, 2004's Shaun of the Dead,Β 2007's Hot Fuzz, and 2013's The World's End are, in my opinion at least, the three best feature films either man was involved with. Wright's Pegg-free work hasn't been bad, precisely, but it's lacking somewhat in humanity.

Last Night in Soho, which Wright co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, is a perfect example of this: it feels like a collection of ideas that have had a story built around them, and the construction of that story is not primarily built around recognisable human behavior. Not by the end, anyway: in truth, while it never feels like anything but an exercise in a funky narrative mechanic, at least it's a good exercise for the first two-thirds or three-quarters of the running time. The ending, charitably, doesn't work; uncharitably, it's a complete disaster that so horribly re-writes the arcs of the characters up to that point, as well as the themes that the film had appeared to be exploring - and it had appeared to be exploring them rather artlessly and tiresomely, for that matter - that one has to wonder whether Wright and Wilson-Cairns had anything resembling a plan for any of this, or if the appearance of psychological and thematic unity in the first half was just a lucky accident.

The film is directed to the hilt, though, we have to give it that much. The basic version of the storyline is that Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is a young Cornish woman with a borderline-dysfunctional love of the pop-culture idea of the Swinging '60s, who has just arrived in London to study at the London College of Fashion. She's staying in a boarding room that seems to have been untouched by time, and as she sleeps, she finds herself observing the life of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a girl her own age who lived in the same room in the actual '60s (Eloise, we have already learned, has a certain psychic gift that enables her to see, at least, the loving ghost of her own dead mother (AimΓ©e Cassettari), so these visions don't come entirely as a surprise, to her or us). These visions have an unstable POV: sometimes Eloise is simply elsewhere in the room, watching Sandie interact with the stylish world around her, sometimes she's staring out of mirrors as Sandie's reflection, and sometimes she's occupying Sandie's body - and here we already run into one of the "hm" moments with the script. There's not exactly any rules governing how Eloise interacts with her visions of Sandie, and it's at least a little bit deliberately ambiguous whether she's just an unseen rider experiencing the actual events of Sandie's life in 1966 (a year never specifically pinned down, and in fact the dialogue avoids pinning it down, but the literal first thing we ever see in Eloise's visions is a theater marquee advertising Thunderball in signage the size of a single-family house), or if she's actually able to to intercede in making Sandie's decisions. That's a little thing, but it does get us to one of the film's... problems, but I hesitate to say "problem". Basically, the governing principle appears to be neither more nor less than "is this cool? Does this let us do something cool? Does it let us get a very cool shot?"

And, sure enough, Last Night in Soho does have some extraordinarily cool shots. It has, I daresay, the single coolest shot I have seen in any 2021 film: during the first of Eloise's visions, Sandie dances at a club with the very-obviously-untrustworthy "manager" Jack (Matt Smith), and during this dance, McKenzie and Taylor-Joy continuously swap places with each other, sometimes appearing as each other's reflections in the mirrors lining the space. This is all executed in a single take, done mostly without post-production trickery; it's all down to choreography and impeccably-timed swings of the camera back and forth to make sure that the actors are just barely off camera when they need to switch places. It's about 98% perfect; at one point, McKenzie clearly stands up into the frame, rather than dancing into it. But somehow, that little 2% feels like a way of showcasing that this is all being done practically, the tiny rough patch that makes it look handmade, and in so doing calls attention to the wild ambition of the rest of the shot.

It's the most conspicuously stylish moment in a film full of conspicuous style. Heck, it's not even the only point where carefully manipulating where McKenzie and Taylor-Joy are standing in the frame relative to each other serves as the lynchpin to this or that splashy transition or cut. Wright is going all-out on filmmaking bravado, and purely in terms of directorial technique, Last Night in Soho is a real looker. It's almost indecently colorful, bathing the action in blatant artificial colors designed primarily to give us a good shove into the emotional states it wants to evoke: red, mostly, since the emotion it cares about the most is a constant feeling of high-alert tension. The film is largely built around Eloise's disintegrating ability to separate her visions from reality - it is suggested this has been an ongoing problem for her - and even more than that, her inability to keep straight where she ends and Sandie begins, which becomes much more pronounced after her visions reveal that Sandie was forced into prostitution by Jack, and as a result, she came to a violent, bad end. In no time at all, she's being haunted by the faceless shapes of the men who paid for Sandie's time, and they're worked into the film tremendously well: slightly out of sync not just with the live-action footage, but with themselves as well, constantly blurring and appearing to shift positions.

It's all very big and robust filmmaking, drawing from some very undisguised influences: at times it feels like it's effectively an uncredited remake of Roman Polanski's 1965 Repulsion, and the color scheme, occasional spurts of violence, and general feeling of the film flaking off into madness are taken right out of Italian horror. Wright's filmmaking has always been openly the work of an obvious cinephile, of course, but Last Night in Soho feels like it takes that to a new level: the movie-ness of it is all that there is. The further this gets from the pure surface-level bliss of the first night's vision, the adoring re-enactment of '60s style in both the sets and costumes, the bottomless enthusiasm of the cinematography and editing (at which point, a round of applause for the crew heads: editor Paul Machliss, cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, and production designer Marcus Rowland) - the further behind it leaves the weightless pleasures of that first part, the more the film gets itself in trouble.

For this is a profoundly confused screenplay. There's almost a whole first act that's basically just there to find some unnecessarily hyper-literal way to motivate Eloise's arrival at the boarding house: first she's in the dorms, but her mean girl roommate Jocasta (SynnΓΈve Karlsen) makes life too hard on her so she leaves, but along the way she catches the eye of John (Michael Ajao), who trails after her like a puppy dog - Jocasta's presence in the film ends up meaning absolutely nothing, and John is such a horrifyingly ill-written and mis-used character that he ends up meaning worse than nothing, but by God, we will spend 15 minutes making sure they get fully introduced. Then things work pretty well at the level of mechanically bouncing us from one cool idea to the next, for a bit; the film tries very hard to have ideas about things, apparently supposing itself to be telling us that too much nostalgia is bad, because the old days weren't really actually very good, and indeed they were perhaps bad, which would feel more meaningful if the film wasn't so lovingly attached to the style of the '60s - or if it didn't end up largely rewarding Eloise for having a similar attachment. But mostly it's okay, and the rising tension is honestly pretty convincing; the excess of technique mean that the whole thing feels appropriately unreal, and the presence of world-class ringers Diana Rigg (as a domineering, grumpy landlady) and Terence Stamp (as a creepy old man with an unpleasant interest in Eloise and a connection to the ugly events of Sandie's life) gives the film some automatic threatening menace whenever they come by to glower.

And it's all slick and watchable and empty in a not-terribly-annoying way, until it decides to go for some shocking reveals, and they are fucking terrible. I cannot recall the last time that a movie's anxious desire to do something to surprise us resulted in a narrative development that so thoroughly violates both the apparent thematic message and the basic storytelling logic of what has gone before as the stupid trick Last Night in Soho pulls on us. It's more than enough to wreck the whole movie, both because it retroactively makes what has already happened seem worse, and because afterwards, everything about the narrative seems that much dumber in and of itself, leading past a hugely implausible climax, all the way up to a final scene, and especially a world-class awful closing shot, that crushes whatever last ounce of cohesion this had as a story, a psychological journey for Eloise, or a consideration of what it means to love a period before you were born more than the present. It's hard for me to hate something with as much go-for-broke style as this has, but that last 20-odd minutes so thoroughly reveals the nakedness and insubstantiality of the whole affair that it's basically impossible not to feel terribly misused.