By Chaz Lipp
The Lowdown: Inventive action and smartly-chosen pop, rock, and soul tunes make this drive fast-paced fun, but a sharper focus on its central romance (and also its surrogate father/son dynamic) might’ve made it a classic.
It’s hard to imagine a movie with a higher coolness factor than writer-director Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. Wright is the man behind ultra-hip cult faves The World’s End, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Hot Fuzz, and Shaun of the Dead. In Baby Driver, he expertly balances a firecracker cast including Jaime Foxx, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Jon Bernthal, and Lily James. At the center of it all is Ansel Elgort (The Divergent Series: Insurgent and Allegiant) in the titular role. As a getaway driver for heist-master Doc (Spacey), Baby initially bounces around with quiet, focused exuberance—that is, until he begins witnessing the bloodier side of the jobs he’s sent on.
Wright gives Baby a wisp of backstory (his parents died in a horrific car crash; prior to that his singer mom was abused by his temperamental dad). Tinnitus (permanent ringing in the ears) has resulted in Baby’s need to listen to music (to reduce the ringing), hence his ever-present earbuds. The tunes he listens to for inspiration while driving serve as the film’s relentless soundtrack. Wright’s song score includes dozens of eclectic selections (the soundtrack album includes 30 tracks). Ranging from the Commodores to T. Rex, Beach Boys to Barry White, the songs are practically part of the cast. The thrillingly kinetic car chase sequences are goosed by the faster tunes, while soul ballads accompany Baby and his waitress gal pal Debora’s (James) flirtations.
Not unlike Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre, Baby Driver is a movie about other movies. Wright wears his influences on his sleeve, chief among them being Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), ‘lovers on the lam’ crime classics like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands, and the music-heavy Goodfellas. In fact, Baby Driver plays like a feature-length extension of the inimitable, rock-driven “May 11, 1980” sequence in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. The bottom line is that Wright’s work here is only skin deep. Luckily it doesn’t seem that he was aiming for much more. As a breathless, adrenaline-fueled, sugar-rush experience Baby Driver more than delivers.
In fact, between the inventive action and snappy dialogue, Wright keeps things firing on all cylinders for the first two-thirds. It’s only during the final act that Baby takes a disappointing turn toward conventionality. There are a couple key weak points, one of which involves Doc and the other Debora. In both cases, Baby’s relationship with these characters is underdeveloped to a fault. Doc’s connection to Baby (who tried to boost Doc’s car once upon a time, leading to a sort of indentured servitude) appears to be strictly professional, so the shift to mawkish sentimentality late in game feels egregious.
Even more troubling is the total non-character of Debora. Lily James is asked to do little more than stand around looking like Jennifer Jason Leigh (think Miami Blues) until, BAM!, she’s dragged into Baby’s world. Prior to her sudden indoctrination into a world of merciless violence, Debora was a personable but blandly personality-deficient waitress. She and Baby enjoy a chaste dinner date and little more. He keeps the true nature of his job (she thinks he’s a chauffeur) hidden as long as he can.
But when a tense situation at the diner—in which Baby and his partners in crime Bats (Foxx), Buddy (Hamm), and Darling (González) drop in for a post-heist bite—alerts Debora that Baby is far less innocent than his name suggests, she decides to stand by her man. Not because it makes any sense, but because it fits the film’s decidedly retro-oriented male-fantasy female paradigm. Wright tips his hat to masters like Scorsese throughout, but winds up shoehorning a sub-True Romance puppy-love ship into the mix. In other words, an imitation of an imitation. While it doesn’t ruin Baby Driver by any means, it dulls its edge.
Baby Driver images: TriStar Pictures