Movie Review: Edgar Wright gives us the Car Chase Musical against which all others will be judged with the blissful “Baby Driver”.
Everybody has his or her own version of a personal soundtrack. Whether it’s a song that reminds you of a great love you once shared with an ex, or a charged-up pop ditty that gets you ready for the day, we often underestimate what a powerful conduit music can be for generating empathy and re-contextualizing our own memories. The right song can turn the simple task of going out for a morning cup of coffee into an immaculate adventure straight out of a Busby Berkeley musical. Obviously, life must rear its ugly head at some point and remind us all that we exist in the real world, and not in the world of movies. If it didn’t, I suspect some of us would lose our minds very quickly.
The genius — and yes, I’m using the word “genius” here — of Edgar Wright’s astonishing fifth feature “Baby Driver” is that it takes this joke-y conceit and goes all the way with it. Wright has always displayed a keen ear for music in all of his films: I think back to “Shaun of the Dead’s” zombie-decimating pub melee, set to the rollicking tones of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” or maybe just the entirety of his delirious “Scott Pilgrim Versus The World”. However, “Baby Driver” boasts more than just the year’s best soundtrack. In “Baby Driver,” music informs every aspect of the story: it provides emotional context for the character’s actions, and the movie’s roller coaster of moods is dictated by an immaculate collection of digging-through-the-crates gems that includes everything from The Commodores to The Damned and even Run The Jewels.
You’ll also noticed that I referred to “Baby Driver” in my headline as a “Car Chase Musical,” which doesn’t mean that the characters spontaneously break out into song and dance while they engage in death-defying vehicular mayhem along the freeways of Downtown Atlanta. Rather, Wright has employed each song in his film in such a precise, meticulous and emotionally appropriate fashion that it feels as though each individual sequence is scored EXACTLY to the song which the director has selected. As such, drum beats mirror gun shots, DJ scratches bleed into the sound of squealing tires, and guitar solos dissolve into rubber-burning automotive drifts that make me think that — at least after seeing this film — that the “Fast and the Furious” brain trust might want to head back to the drawing board, and soon.
So, music aside, how is “Baby Driver” as a film? In a word: Awesome. Like, capital-A Awesome. Pump-your-fists-in-the-air, hug-your-best-friend, be-grateful-you’re-alive Awesome. The film exudes an effortless joy for all of its brisk 113-minute runtime that never once relents; the result is akin to mainlining pure crystalline sugar while blasting your coolest friend’s eclectic LP collection at full volume. It’s the best film of 2017 so far and if it’s not Wright’s best film overall (a second viewing is required to make that assessment) it is the absolute zenith of his filmmaking craft. Everything that makes Wright and interesting and singular storyteller — his whip-smart sense of humor, the airtight precision of his editing and visual cues, the densely woven sense of tomfoolery that makes films like “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End” feel less like genre pastiches and more like fully-formed universes unto themselves — is on full display in “Baby Driver,” and the British auteur is more confident and brazen here than he’s ever been.
“Baby Driver” would still be one of the year’s best films if it were simply an exercise in style. And yet, as is the case with all of Wright’s movies, “Baby Driver” is a deeply personal statement from its creator, disguised as a breathlessly clever genre riff. “Shaun of the Dead” had enough zombie beheadings and car chases so that undemanding horror geeks could (no pun intended) gobble it up without thinking too deeply about it. And yet, at its core, Wright’s breakout feature is about an immature, lonely man who only learns to transcend his limitations when everyone he knows starts to turn into a flesh-eating member of the undead.
“Hot Fuzz” was the director’s gonzo tribute to the bullet ballets of John Woo as well as Michael Bay’s shaky-cam chaos, and it’s pretty much a perfect movie if you wish to see British grannies wielding dual glocks, Chow Yun Fat-style. And yet, “Hot Fuzz” also explores disconcerting themes of alienation, duty, and the insidious underbelly of British politesse, and these motifs linger long after the gunsmoke has settled and the hooligans have returned from the pub. “Scott Pilgrim Versus the World” was a rock-‘em-sock-‘em video game rom-com laced with bittersweet subtext about co-dependency and loss, while “The World’s End” was a tragic subversion of the man-child comedy that examined masculine fragility against the backdrop of an alien-invasion flick indebted to the John Carpenter cult classics of the 1980’s. Reader, are you beginning to see a pattern here?
Like “Hot Fuzz,” “Baby Driver” shows Wright’s deep love for (and mastery of) the action genre. But whereas the director’s breakout second film saw him taking inspiration from the likes of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Point Break” and even the original “Wicker Man,” “Baby Driver” is indebted to a more offbeat set of influences. The movie’s basic central conceit is one we’ve seen in everything from Walter Hill’s seminal “The Driver” to Nicolas Winding Refn’s more recent “Drive”: a stoic getaway driver with a tortured past agrees to one last job so that he may ensure the safety of the woman he loves.
Of course, there’s so much more to “Baby Driver” than this reductive synopsis suggests. While the film’s slam-bang action theatrics are genuinely arresting, the film is sillier, funnier and more surreal than anything Wright’s made since his great British cult T.V. series “Spaced”. It’s also a genuinely moving love story, a poignant allegory about memory and trauma, the bittersweet tale of a father and a son, a crackling crime movie, and a chance to see some of our best actors chew on some deliciously witty hard-boiled dialogue that sometimes sounds like Elmore Leonard’s lowlife patter done in the screwball style of P.G. Wodehouse.
Like nearly all of Wright’s cinematic mixtapes, “Baby Driver” is so much more than the sum of its parts that to describe it merely in relation to its influences feels slightly disingenuous. This is a film you have to experience for yourself: preferably in a crowd full of enthusiastic movie-lovers who are ready to rip, roar and ride off into the sunset to the sounds of Barry White’s “Never Never Gonna Give You Up”. Get ready to hug your best friends when you walk out of this one, folks.
“Baby Driver” opens with a dazzlingly choreographed bank robbery set piece set to the raucous tones of “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. In this instant-classic opening, we learn a few things: our Driver is literally named Baby, and is played with a sleepy-eyed, laconic charm by the young Ansel Elgort. Baby doesn’t just boast an extensive music collection (he has different iPods for different moods). He needs these tunes to do his job. Turns out Baby suffers from a rare form of Tinnitus: a chronic ringing in his ears brought on by a terrible childhood accident in which he lost both of his parents. By filling his earbuds with everything from Motown to Glam Rock, Baby isn’t just devising his own personal getaway soundtrack. He’s actively trying to suppress the trauma that has defined him ever since he was young. Baby is also indebted to a particularly heartless criminal mastermind named Doc (Kevin Spacey, perfectly cast and better than he’s been in years), who caught Baby trying to steal from him some years ago and is now making the poor kid pay off his debt.
Doc’s crew is what Hillary Clinton may have referred to on the campaign trail as a veritable basket of deplorables. In the scenes where we meet Doc’s gang, Wright indulges in his love of low-down crime classics like “Heat” and “Reservoir Dogs”: films populated by poker-faced tough guys with silly nicknames, elaborate backstories and a readymade itinerary of profane threats for any occasion. There’s Griff (Jon Bernthal), whose neck tattoos tell you everything you need to know about his personality. There’s also Buddy (a superbly slimy Jon Hamm) and his girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), a pair of psycho lovebirds who are necking like high school sweethearts when they’re not sticking up post offices. And then there’s the truly unhinged Bats (the indispensable Jamie Foxx), who stands out as being the most disreputable member of this very disreputable crew. Compared to these scumbags, Baby looks like an angel and indeed, most of the early scenes see our soft-spoken, sunglasses-wearing hero sitting in the back of Doc’s meetings like a reserved nerd in the back of P.E. class, hoping he doesn’t get called upon by teacher.
Baby doesn’t have any friends or anything resembling a social life, aside from pizza and karaoke-at-home nights with his deaf foster father, played in a disarmingly touching performance by an expressive, hearing-impaired actor named C.J. Jones. Some rays of sunshine poke through Baby’s cloudy criminal existence when he meets the lovely Debora (newcomer Lily James) at his local diner. As Debora, Ms. James projects a luminosity that is almost otherworldly. She is a beacon of innocence in an impure world, and her romance with Elgort is so believable and winning that you instantly want to see these two lovers get away from the lethal business that comes part and parcel with our young hero’s preferred line of work.
Of course, in these movies, such getaways are never easy. Before you can say “Egyptian Reggae,” the walls start to close in on Baby and Deb, and Wright starts to crank up the on-screen pyrotechnics to a feverishly enjoyable level. Aside from its poignant emotional rendering of genre types and brilliant subversion of shopworn scenarios, “Baby Driver” also offers a master class in fluid, dare I say musical action filmmaking. Wright’s style has always been a marvel to behold, and a far cry from the choppy technique practiced by most directors currently working in this genre, where spatial coherence is but a fleeting myth.
It would be easy to look at “Baby Driver’s” flippant, colorful exterior and deduce that this is a minor effort from Mr. Wright: a lark, a stylish goof, an cheeky experiment in style. Oh, how very incorrect those assessments would be. Like all of the director’s films, “Baby Driver” never forces the viewer’s hand on false sentiment, and it goes about its business with an easygoing lack of pretense. And yet, there is an unexpected weight in the movie’s final stretch that makes the climactic symphony of screeching metal and rapid-fire gunplay more than just mere theatrics from one of our best directors.
Like all of Wright’s movies, “Baby Driver” is about dreamers trapped by their fantasies. It’s a movie about the liberation and emotional hindrance that can be wrought by great music that also stops to make a perfectly-timed joke about the confusion between a Michael Myers “Halloween” mask and a Mike Myers Halloween mask (hint: if you’re showing up to a bank robbery with hopes that your masks look intimidating, maybe don’t go with Austin Powers). If reading that sentence doesn’t make you smile at least a little, then maybe this isn’t the movie for you.
I’ve never really taken note of Ansel Elgort before now. He was fine in Jason Reitman’s otherwise woeful internet-age paranoia piece “Men, Women and Children,” and he’s mostly known to viewers as part of the lucrative and popular “Divergent” film series. Elgort is so effortlessly charismatic in “Baby Driver” that I suspect it won’t be long before we start to see him pop up in Harrison Ford/Chris Pratt rogue scofflaw parts: he’s that good. Spacey, meanwhile, is genuinely menacing as the eloquent crime lord Doc — almost to the point where you’ll forgive him for his questionable hosting duties at this year’s Tony Awards.
Elsewhere, Jon Hamm confirms my suspicion once again that he’s a more skilled comic actor than a dramatic one — he plays a former Wall Street trader who trades a life of white collar misdeeds for a more comparatively honest life of crime — and Lily James displays a talent and wisdom that betrays her youthful countenance in the role of Deb. If there’s one character you’ll probably walk out of the movie quoting, though, it’s Jamie Foxx’s nutty Bats: the kind of glowering psycho who likes to proudly brag about his mental problems before a job goes down. Foxx has made a mark in both action (“Miami Vice,” this year’s otherwise forgettable “Sleepless”) and comedy (his early days as a stand-up) and he all but walks away with the movie’s biggest laughs and most memorable lines.
Wright shot “Baby Driver” in Atlanta, which is an odd (and probably unrelated) mirror coincidence of the fact that his other non-Cornetto Flavors film, “Scott Pilgrim,” was filmed in that other premium shooting location, Canada. Both “Scott Pilgrim” and “Baby Driver” actually make optimum use of their oft-covered backdrops, with “Baby Driver” going so far as to include local Atlanta businesses like Criminal Records and Goodfellas Pizza, as well as making time for local rap heroes like Run The Jewels’ Killer Mike and Big Boi of Outkast. It is a film that takes a certain childlike enthusiasm in its setting, and Wright’s boyish glee in staging all this madness extends to his audience as well. I predict “Baby Driver” will be a fairly massive crossover hit, perhaps even going so far as to convert those fair-weather viewers who are used to seeing Wright yuk it up with pals Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the English countryside.
In case you couldn’t tell, I really can’t recommend “Baby Driver” enough. It is everything you could ever want out of a moviegoing experience, and sometimes it even transcends that. It has humor, heart, breathtaking action, wonderful characters, a near-perfect soundtrack, an unimpeachably perfect Walter Hill cameo, a warehouse shootout set to the ridiculous notes of “Tequila,” and a melancholy, ambiguous ending that goes even further in the direction of Wright’s open-ended coda to “The World’s End”. It may or may not be Mr. Wright’s best film, but it is the absolute quintessence of who he is as an artist, and why his cinematic voice is an essential one in our current moviegoing landscape. Filmmakers in 2017: “Baby Driver” is the one to beat so far this year. Grade: A.