There are plenty of jokes in Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s colorfully kinetic crime-musical extravaganza. The quips fly as fast as the bullets, and the tense stretch right before or after a high-stakes heist is sometimes punctured by some inspired comic relief—say, a lunkheaded criminal confusing fictional Hollywood serial killer Michael Myers with real Hollywood star Mike Myers. You’ll laugh, when not gripping the armrest or bobbing your head to the pop songs on the soundtrack. But Baby Driver is not built primarily to amuse. “It’s funny in places but it’s not a comedy,” Wright said of the film back in December during a first-look interview with Entertainment Weekly, and he wasn’t kidding. That makes it an anomaly in the career of its British writer-director, who’s always mixed multiple genres in the blender of his enthusiastic style, but historically with humor as the main ingredient.
Wheeling out of his wheelhouse seems to have paid off. Beyond the glowing reviews, Baby Driver is shaping up to be the biggest hit of Wright’s career: At $41 million and counting, it’s already made more in America than any of his other movies—and it might not be long before it speeds right past Hot Fuzz to become his biggest hit on a worldwide scale, too. Incidentally, that puts the film in the company of another recent departure by a comedy veteran who got his start on television: Jordan Peele’s socially barbed horror smash Get Out. Critically and commercially, Get Out is an even bigger success than Baby Driver; Peele’s fledgling foray into the scaring business currently sits at 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (the year’s highest score) and has grossed a whopping $252 million at the international box-office, which—given the frugal $4.5 million budget—makes it one of the most profitable movies of all time.
Now, before every budding Judd Apatow drops their comedy script in the dumpster and gets cracking on an action or horror project instead, it’s worth identifying a different lesson in the resume boosts these two artists just received. Yes, they’ve scored with movies that marginalize the humor that’s their regular stock-in-trade, playing certain scenarios more seriously—more for pure thrills than for laughs. But there’s a strong case to be made that neither Wright nor Peele could have made such graceful leaps into straight genre work without their particular comedic experience. What they share, specifically, is a background in the lost art of parody.
In its purest form, parody is equal parts mimicry and mockery. The best ones present an uncanny facsimile and then tweak it with comedy. The jokes are important, yes, but maybe less so than how convincingly the original property (a classic movie, a popular TV show) is aped. Parody requires much more from its orchestrators than simply landing a gag. Effectively, they have to approximate the look and the feel, the language, of whatever they’re spoofing. Want to skewer slasher movies? You have to understand them—to look under their hoods and tinker with their moving parts. Want to do a comic riff on musicals? Better actually learn how to properly film singing and dancing. To make a parody—a good one, a sophisticated one, a spot-on one—is to enroll yourself in a filmmaking crash course.
Wright is well past graduation. Baby Driver may be the first of his films to operate without the safety net of nonstop gags, but it’s hardly the first time he’s dabbled in genres other than comedy. What is his celebrated, so-called Cornetto Trilogy but a bunch of high-concept thrillers with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost dropped into the middle of them? Wright has never half-assed the non-humorous side of his mashups: The zombies in Shaun Of The Dead are scary, the action in Hot Fuzz is exciting, and the…well, the thing that happens around the midway mark of The World’s End is almost as creepy as it would be in the “normal” sci-fi version of its story. His gift as a parodist is to take what he’s goofing on seriously. When it comes to his irreverent spin on movie tropes, imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.
Still, Wright’s supreme respect and affection for other movies would mean much less if he hadn’t taught himself how to precisely impersonate them—to get their style down cold. Hot Fuzz is maybe the most illustrative example from his filmography. It’s one of the director’s most ambitious hybrids, cross-pollinating a mismatched buddy-cop flick with a fish-out-of-water comedy, a high-octane shoot-em-up, and (spoilers for a decade-old movie) a Wicker Man-style small-town conspiracy. Much of the fun comes from seeing these disparate genres co-mingling, but it also comes from Wright’s reproduction of other filmmakers’ style—specifically, and especially, the stutteringly bombastic violence of the finale, when the filmmaker briefly transforms into Michael Bay and Tony Scott. Truthfully, the guns-and-fists stuff in Wright’s movies has always been technically exhilarating enough to pass for the set-pieces in a “real” action movie; like most great parodists, he’s a quick study. That makes Baby Driver less of a detour than a kind of confident rebranding—Wright simply removing the comedic framework he’s always placed around his euphoric genre hopping.
Jordan Peele doesn’t have the same volume of experience behind the camera as Wright; IMDB identifies Get Out as his first and only directorial credit. But as star, writer, and co-creator of the multi-season Comedy Central sketch program Key & Peele, he’s spent years immersed in the world of parody. Both Peele and the other half of his comedy duo, Keegan-Michael Key, are unabashed movie buffs; their fandom informed numerous sketches on the show, from those delirious valet geek-offs (“That would be my jam”) to a bit where the two flip stereotypes by heckling a movie with their deep knowledge of film theory.
But the pair’s familiarity and love of conventions came through perhaps most clearly during the annual Halloween episodes. A standard Key & Peele sketch operates by a tried-and-true formula: present a straight dramatic scenario, then suddenly introduce a satirical comic twist. The Halloween sketches often took that format a step further by setting up an imaginary horror movie—a den of sexy vampires, a neighborhood overrun with the undead—that could quickly be subverted. For the sketch to work, though, the illusion had to be convincing: The zombie movie had to look at least a little like a real zombie movie. And so several of these miniature parodies actually operate like solid (albeit economical) homages to the films they’re spoofing, complete with halfway-credible replications of their tricks: the “urgent” shifts in exposure and shutter speed in “White Zombies,” the sudden jump-scare appearances of a J-horror specter in the background of the frame in “Roommate Meeting,” etc.
Get Out heightens the horror and pulls back on the humor, but it still operates, essentially, like one of the pointed parodies on Key & Peele. The film’s plot—a young black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) endures a weekend with the supposedly liberal parents of his white girlfriend, only to discover a chilling supernatural dimension to their racism—could work as a three-minute sketch. Peele expands it to feature length by agonizingly extending the portion before the twist, which he then simply declines to play for laughs. As in the best Key & Peele sketches, Peele presents and manipulates familiar tropes for the purposes of social criticism; like “White Zombies,” the film smuggles sharp insight about American racism—and an empowering ending—into a recognizable genre premise. (Peele seems to share some of Wright’s taste in horror; he, too, has spoofed living-dead and town-with-a-secret narratives.) As in Hot Fuzz, there’s also a formal veracity to Get Out’s genre recreation: The superb opening scene finds Peele doing Halloween better than most of the Halloween sequels, and the pure scary-movie moments suggest a strong grasp on the fundamentals of horror. It makes sense that he’d be a skilled impressionist behind the camera; his breakout tenure on Mad TV established him as a skilled impressionist in front of it.
Neither Get Out nor Baby Driver are actual spoofs, of course. But they keep the tradition alive much better than most contemporary big-screen parodies. There are welcome throwbacks, like Black Dynamite or Team America: World Police (a movie that’s never funnier, by this critic’s estimation, than when it’s just expertly trotting out the dumb techniques of a dopey jingoistic blockbuster, like the little lilt of phony Middle Eastern music that accompanies the first appearance of the film’s derpa-derpa terrorists). But for the most part, big-screen spoofery has been hijacked by a graceless class of sub-ZAZ lunacy; your Epic Movies and your late Scary Movie sequels lazily aim for the recognition centers of their audience’s brains (hey, remember this movie you watched 16 months ago?) without ever suggesting that their makers comprehend what really makes their targets tick. For anything approaching the parodic aptitude of, say, vintage Mel Brooks, you often have to look to television, to genre-drunk sitcoms like Community (it’s no great wonder the Russo brothers went on to make Marvel tentpoles) and to sketch programs. Has there been a more hilariously dead-on spoof in the last few years than “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer”?
Working in the arena of parody has supplied both Wright and Peele with the tools they needed to succeed outside of it; learning how to meticulously poke fun at different styles of cinema allowed them to master those styles, to the point where it’s possible to imagine both directors having healthy careers in other genres. (Their crack timing couldn’t have hurt, either; if you can land a punchline, you can probably pull off a jump scare or a car chase, too.) That said, the urge to score laughs could be hard to shake. Baby Driver and Get Out may not be yukfests in the strictest sense, but they’re still funnier—in their dialogue, especially—than the majority of the movies that have opened in theaters this year. You can take the director out of comedy…