Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, Jon Bernthal
Director: Edgar Wright
Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Baby Driver, the latest zippy entertainment from writer-director Edgar Wright, is not really a movie in the traditional sense. If cinema isn't primarily meant to conjure the artifice of moviemaking, then no one has bothered to pass that note along to Wright, who unspools a pastiche of affected genre tropes, archetypal characters, and music video montages which speaks to the very act of filmmaking as a highly constructed stunt. Of course, audiences should be smart enough to know that movies are pure fantasy, anyhow. The unapologetic thrill of going to the movies is often knowing that strings are being pulled, and seeing the puppet master at work has it's undeniable pleasures. This is something Wright has cannily exploited before in films like the sublime zombie deconstruction Shaun of the Dead or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, which embraced and ridiculed video game/comic book geek culture. With Baby Driver, Wright seems hyper-aware of how arch his stylized cinematic playground is, but allows his characters to remain clueless, trapping them inside a cornball narrative which limits their range of expression. The results are a series of tightly edited, rapid-fire sequences cut to a carefully curated set of songs with lame character beats sandwiched in between. Wright has always expressed a kind of teenage fanboy enthusiasm for older movies. In this case, he's riffing on Walter Hill's The Driver, Michael Mann's Heat, and to some extent, classic Hollywood musicals, but his overly mannered style does very little to subvert what he's shamelessly rehashing. Unlike Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and even Scott Pilgrim, Baby Driver uses quirk not as a satirical jab, but rather, simply as quirk.
When we first meet Baby (Ansel Elgort), he's tapping the steering wheel and singing along to the sounds of "Bellbottoms" by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion while waiting for his fellow criminals to finish the robbery. Edited to the cadence and rhythms of the tune, Wright unleashes a rollicking car chase; full of swerving vehicles, roadway pileups, hand-brake turns, and squealing rings of tire smoke. Despite the fact that we've seen a million car chases before, Wright handles the geography and sense of pacing like a well-oiled technician. There's something thrillingly exacting about his aesthetic, which works well when things are in a constant state of motion. Whenever characters need to slow down and trade sideways barbs or actually entertain a conversation, however, Wright's failings as a writer prove nearly insurmountable.
In terms of plot, Baby Driver rounds up the usual clichés and action crime thriller chess pieces. The question remains; is Wright clever or willing enough to knock them down? There's a no-nonsense crime boss (Kevin Spacey, the king of smirk), a Bonnie and Clyde-style couple named Buddy and Darling (Jon Hamm and Eiza González, respectively) and the stereotypical psychopath, Bats (Jamie Foxx), all on hand for "one last job." Baby suffers from tinnitus, or "a hum in the drum," as Doc puts it, which explains his fixation with blasting his music collection via iPod, but more than anything, it plays as a clunky gimmick for Wright to cram his personal mixtape soundtrack into the film. Though there's a glimmer of a tragic past involving Baby's deceased parents, his decision to become a hired driver for criminals is never explained, nor is his embarrassing habit of prancing around Atlanta in broad daylight like a millennial John Travolta. Also, Baby is supposed to be a cool guy with cool taste in music, but that part, like his bland love affair with a bland waitress (Lily James) remains highly unconvincing.
As the hits keep coming; The Damned, Queen, Golden Earring, Barry White, the Commodores, James Brown, among many more get major iPod play, it's clear Wright is trying to amp up our auditory and visual senses to the point where nothing else matters. Perhaps Baby Driver can work simply on style alone; a sugar rush of genres (love story, heist thriller, modern musical, car chase action extravaganza) all held together by a music playlist. However, at nearly two hours, Wright gravely miscalculates how far he can take his arch music video aesthetic while never giving us a story, much less any characters, we can connect with. Elgort is supposed to be a brooding quiet type with a heart, but he communicates very little non-verbally that would lead us to believe he's anything other than an archetypal prop. James, meanwhile, cuts a sunny disposition as the doting waitress, but her role is so underwritten to the point of being offensive. If Wright is trying to pay homage to 1950's apple pie melodrama, he should have allowed a sense of knowing weirdness to creep in, ala Twin Peaks, instead of playing the fairy tale corniness at face value. Hamm and Foxx seem to be enjoying themselves as diabolical baddies, but again, Wright sets up these chess pieces and just lets them sit there. In the end, we are left looking at a board where no one dares make a bold or controversial move. Only Spacey seems to be in on the joke, if there even is one, but that may simply stem from the fact that we half expect him to turn to the camera and deliver exposition on proper Post Office robbery etiquette.
Had Wright used pastiche as a way of commenting on arrested development (all the men here, aside from Baby, are basically overgrown children), or tweaked his considerable visual talents in service of something which didn't feel so manufactured, Baby Driver might have gained some of the loving satire of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, or At World's End. In those pictures, Wright felt understandably at home. Coming to America seems like an odd fit for someone who has always utilized milieu as a jumping off point for skewering social dynamics. Baby Driver has none of the personality, humor, or open-heartedness of Wright's best work. It's simply an amalgamation of all of his tics, quirks, and aesthetic choices without any understanding of why we should care about the people he's chosen to place at the center of the story, no matter how fast Baby drives that car.