Baby Driver

Baby Driver ★★★★

“You in?” “I’m in, Baby.”

For the pop culture obsessive, every thought, every conversation, every interaction is freighted with meaning. The music, books, films, and television we love become the prism through which we view the universe. A group of umbrellas on a rainy day brings to mind a hapless brigade of nannies in Mary Poppins or a gifted assassin’s divertissement in Foreign Correspondent or a lovelorn Catherine Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. A bus ride recalls the ambiguous denouement of The Graduate, the Hitchcock cameos of North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief, the high-stakes action of Speed. A picturesque snowfall calls up visions of White Christmas’s happiest of times, Bambi’s saddest of times, and Kill Bill: Vol. 1’s times concerned with baser emotions.

It is, in its way, delightful—the mind addled by cultural effluvia is never beset by a dull moment—and it can provide a great means of connection—who doesn’t like movies or music or what-have-you? But it can also be, in its way, alienating. Know enough about widely disseminated media and you can be a lively, or at least informed, participant in the cultural conversation. Know too much, and you’re that weird guy who can’t separate himself from his reveries long enough to engage in reality or even to notice that the two are distinct. (But one example: The other day, a colleague who, when irritated, refers to herself as “Meany [Redacted],” was misunderstood by another colleague as having said “Mini [Redacted].” This comical misapprehension at first led to a reference to the Austin Powers films—a shared touchstone bonding the assembled in mutual appreciation. Being prone to let my enthusiasm get the better of me more often than I should, I, in turn, brought the conversation to Asylum, and specifically to the absurd homunculi of its wonderfully silly final short story—a reference, party of one, seated in a dimly lit corner by the restroom. C’est la vie—I love Asylum and insist you stop reading to watch it pronto.)

Baby (Ansel Elgort) falls on the latter end of this spectrum, unable to conduct his getaway driving duties (or to do much of anything else) without the assistance of a carefully curated soundtrack. Baby has a medical condition by way of excuse—tinnitus tracing to an automobile accident that left young Baby orphaned while listening to his cherished new iPod, an event that improbably did not put Baby off of either iPods or automobiles. The constant stream of tunes, according to Doc (Kevin Spacey), drowns out the hum in Baby’s drum—though it just as usefully serves as a partition separating Baby from his criminal cohort, including the cocky Griff (Jon Bernthal) and the volatile Bats (Jamie Foxx), and as a bridge connecting Baby and his object of affection, Debora (Lily James), diner waitress and something of a music aficionado herself. For most around him, Baby’s musical obsession is, if not actively annoying, an obnoxious affectation that must be suffered in order to partake of his superlative skills behind the wheel. For Debora, who wears stripes but does not look like a zeb-o-ra, it is part of his charm.

Or so we may assume. In truth, writer-director Edgar Wright’s screenplay does not invest Debora with a surfeit of interior life. Debora mostly falls in love with Baby, and at warp speed, because she is the love interest in Baby Driver and thus must fulfill her role. Baby knows a song called “Debora,” conveniently with the same unconventional spelling as his newfound paramour, and she knows that the band that performs it is T-Rex, not Trex, and so they were meant to be. Yes, she barely knows Baby, and yes, what she comes to know includes his involvement in the violent criminal underworld of Atlanta—but her mom is dead and she really doesn’t like waiting tables for the cranky diner cook, so why not uproot her life for a charmingly nerdy accomplice to armed robbery and murder?

So goes one of the central curiosities of watching Baby Driver. Wright’s joyous jukebox musical-cum-action spectacular is not really interested in subverting clichés à la the New Hollywood of the 1960s and ‘70s—despite Wright’s love for The Driver, he is not particularly interested in its brand of downbeat neo-noir cool. Instead, Wright provides the most colorful, buoyant, unabashedly uncool version of those clichés he possibly can. Criminal with one last job/who wants to go straight but can’t? Check. Paper thin love interest with a heart of gold who is also reminiscent of criminal’s mom? Check. Icy ringleader as de facto father figure? Check. Gang of varied hoodlums, including an unpredictable wild card? Check. Participant who seems not to be listening to the carefully constructed plan but actually heard and can repeat, verbatim, every word thereof? Check. Bad guy who appears to be dead but just won’t die? Check check check. On the one hand, it’s slightly dispiriting to see a filmmaker as inventive as Wright do so little that is counterintuitive or surprising with the action genre he has chosen to pastiche—especially considering the inventiveness with which the musical side of the film is handled, marrying needle drops and drum beats to onscreen action in exhilarating ways. And yet it’s hard to deny that Baby Driver is mostly a pleasure to watch—one of the most purely enjoyable two hours one could hope to spend in a movie theater.

Part of Baby Driver’s difficulty is of its own making, opening with an unimpeachable one-two punch that almost necessarily means the rest of the film plays catch-up to the high on which Wright begins. The opening scene, a heist involving Griff, Buddy (Jon Hamm), and Darling (Eiza González)—everyone operates under aliases, naturally, giving Debora a welcome naturalness by virtue of actually having a name—is set to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” and lays out Wright’s aims and contradictions neatly. Baby is seen as sublimely dorky, bopping in his seat and turning on the windshield wipers in time to the beat, while angry screams and gunshots emanate from the bank across the street—the innocent and the corrupt operating side by side. Once the gang returns to Baby’s red Subaru, he takes off, every turn and movement occurring in time to the music, evading a hoard of squad cars while utilizing a pair of unfortunate red sedans on the freeway as a means of diversion. It is utterly divine, and gives way to an equally exceptional scene of Baby awkwardly dancing down the street on a coffee run while Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” plays, the lyrics popping up in signage and graffiti as though the world exists solely to provide a suitable backdrop to Baby’s aural collage. It is as perfect an opening as one could hope for, unsullied by the plot schematics that will leave Baby Driver in its ultimately imperfect state.

Those plot schematics disappoint not just, and not even particularly, in their lack of originality. Indeed, “the criminal who wants to get clean but can’t” and “the killer who just keeps coming” are staples of crime/action/horror pictures since time immemorial, their satisfaction (or lack thereof) resting in the particulars of their execution rather than in and of themselves. And Wright’s execution is nothing if not exuberant and infectious—there is little more exciting as a movie-lover than watching a fellow movie-lover ply his craft with obvious affection to go along with ample skill. But eventually Baby Driver seems to be making things up ad hoc, finding ways out of narrative jams with little regard for what went before or what will come after. (**For the handful that haven’t seen the film, and at the risk of sounding like Nicholas Angel (“I won't argue that it wasn't a no-holds-barred adrenaline-fueled thrill-ride, but there's no way that you could perpetrate that amount of carnage and mayhem and not incur a considerable amount of paperwork.”), spoilers follow.**)

Take, for example, Doc’s decision to help Baby and Debora escape near the film’s conclusion. Doc’s about-face is, supposedly, motivated by Debora’s arrival, a heart-melting display of youthful ardor that reminds Doc that he was in love once, too. If Doc had never seen Debora before, or had never seen Debora and Baby together before, perhaps this could work—perhaps Doc’s perpetual coldness and just-beneath-the-surface venom could be played off as a mask concealing a cuddly romantic underneath. Yet this is not so—not long before, Doc watched Baby and Debora canoodle at a fancy restaurant, limpid eyes gazing longingly at one another, a vision that left him so unmoved he threatened to break Baby’s legs and permanently disfigure Debora should Baby resist doing Doc’s bidding. Doc’s altruism works in the moment to get Baby and Debora out of a narrative jam while re-supplying Baby with the Golden Tape of Mom’s Voice, but in the context of the larger film, it is inexplicable.

Or consider the ending itself: After finally vanquishing the increasingly Terminator-like Buddy, Debora and Baby head off in a stolen truck, a satchel of Doc’s money in tow, ready to live as lovers on the run. Baby, who began the film as an ostensible innocent, a young man who as a younger boy made a bad decision and got pulled against his will into a life of violent crime, a young man who moves his getaway car out of the way so as not to have to see shots fired, has now lost that innocence. Choosing to meet Buddy toe-to-toe rather than run, Baby embraces the violence long surrounding him—a nicely dark development in a film often lighter than air. As the paramours flee, it seems there are two possible narratively and emotionally fulfilling options—escape followed by a life spent evading law enforcement, perhaps south of the border; or a Bonnie and Clyde- or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-style blowout, with the newly darkened Baby and the love-blind Debora heedlessly rushing into a hail of bullets. At first, Baby Driver seems to be setting up the latter—Baby awakens to his mother’s rendition of “Easy” while Debora drives, suddenly coming upon a police barricade on a bridge. All is lost—the plan they don’t have will end in death, as all such plans do.

Instead, Baby surrenders, Debora gets off scot-free despite seemingly being an accessory (to grand theft auto if to nothing else), a parade of people—including Baby’s victims—testify at his trial as to his fundamental sweetness of disposition and goodness of character, and after five years, Baby gets out on parole, Debora waiting for him like something out of a vision (specifically his own remarkably predictive mid-film vision). Like Doc’s bizarre self-sacrifice, on its own it works well enough—the montage is swift, the paeans to Baby’s decency seem heartfelt enough, and the closing image, melting from black and white to color as the title song starts playing, is indelible and heartwarming. But it also feels false—even in the fantasy world of musicals and action pictures, there needs to be some internal logic (not real-world resemblance, but film-world coherence) binding the progression from points A to B to C. Yet try as one might, it is exceedingly difficult to see how Baby’s steady descent from sweet “Harlem Shuffle”-ing dweeb to cold-blooded killer (or for that matter Debora’s steady descent from sweet purveyor of coffee and Coke to willing criminal accomplice) winds up in a storybook ending, all innocence improbably restored as though nothing had happened in the first place.

But Baby Driver is not all, or even mostly, dissatisfaction. It’s rather like a mammoth ice cream sundae—delicious in the consumption, but a bit discomfiting when you think about it too much afterward. Yet we keep going back for sundaes—they are, after all, delicious. The performances throughout range from good to great, with Wright’s knack for casting continuing to pay dividends. Though Wright’s dialogue (crafted here for the first time without a co-writer) can tend toward overexertion (“Shop, let’s talk it.”), the assembled players generally know how to give it the right spin, with Spacey, Foxx, and Hamm particularly good. Spacey, prone to grandiosity, keeps his hammiest tendencies reined in, giving Doc a professional menace, while Foxx, also prone to overstatement, plays Bats as dangerously unhinged but with a fervor that can make him valuably brave until it makes him reckless. Hamm plays beautifully off of Spacey and Foxx’s misdirection—with the latter two inhabiting the roles that would ordinarily end up as the chief villain(s), Hamm can play seething anger overlain with not-entirely-convincing bonhomie, a veneer that falls completely once his beloved passes, giving way to a terrifying Michael Myers-like (or is it Jason Voorhees-like?) relentlessness. Best of all is James, who creates Debora from nearly nothing—her luminous charm goes miles toward making believable her love for Baby and her willingness to partner with him even as things derail spectacularly. As for Elgort, he nicely plays the awkward, dorky side of Baby, equal parts charm and blunder, as well as the sense that Baby’s driving prowess is rooted firmly in its built-in disconnect from those for whom he is driving. If Baby’s evolution into a criminal badass is less convincing, perhaps that is because Baby, like his nickname, cannot be fully robbed of his innocence—or perhaps it is because the gawky Elgort is himself less than badass.

Most of all, Baby Driver impresses in its technical execution. Few could leave the theater without wishing that Wright would helm a straight-ahead musical posthaste—it is no surprise that, along with the expected behind-the-scenes personnel, a choreographer is credited, so well-integrated are the musical selections and the onscreen movement. Wright’s background in comedy serves him well, giving him an understanding of how visual clarity, so useful in landing a joke, is also crucial to an action sequence’s impact. Whether by car or by foot, the chase scenes are dynamic and exciting not just because of their content but because we as viewers can parse that content, understanding where bodies and cars are in relation to each other and how their movements intersect and diverge. And Wright’s shot-making sensibility remains sterling—from the use of car mirrors to the spinning of color-coordinated laundry to a group of police cars pursuing Baby in chevron flight, Baby Driver is never without visual interest regardless of what is happening with the narrative.

Seeing as the object of Wright’s obsession is film, visual interest can carry him far, if not quite all the way. As a fellow film obsessive, it is hard not to see the unevenness and be mildly saddened—every new film is, after all, a chance to fall in love. But in the real world and outside of our fantasies, falling in love should be rarer and less easy than it is for Baby and Debora. So one settles for falling in fond affection instead, content that the next time one hears “Bellbottoms” or “Harlem Shuffle,” the mind will spring into action with visual accompaniment. On the pop-culture-obsessive scale from welcoming to alienating, Wright rests decidedly on the former end. He’s a looney, just like his tunes.

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