Baby Driver

An exploration of some flaws in something I all the same really enjoyed.

To say I’m a fan of Edgar Wright’s work is an understatement. The wonderment of Spaced, his Cornetto trilogy of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End are all films I love dearly and will rewatch forever, and Scott Pilgrim so perfectly captured comic-book freneticism.

His attention to detail regularly astonishes me, both visually and in his writing. His shots are framed perfectly, his long takes mesmerising and addictively rewatchable, and the dialog especially so tightly constructed it triggers absolute joy.

Inevitably then, I’ve been very excited for Baby Driver. His first film for a little while (after The World’s End and his aborted turn directing Ant-Man.) It’s somewhat notable given its American cast, setting and an action genre that’s quintessentially American; very distinct from the quirky British pastiches he’s most known for. Wright himself cites movies like The Driver, Bullet and The French Connection in his inspiration in the genre of automotive adrenaline.

Going in, I was concerned that watching the trailer might’ve already spoiled it. I remember Wright commenting during the release of The World’s End to avoid trailers at all costs, since it revealed the principal secret of his antagonists right there. This one for Baby Driver felt so conventional in illustrating the story arc that I was worried about whether I’d be surprised at all. Impressively, they got a lot of that footage out in the first sequence.

So, I found it delightful. The execution was wonderful, the pace was right, and while I found Ansel Elgort initially… odd… by the end I think the naïve hamminess of early scenes was a useful contrast to the place he ends up.

Much has been made of this being Wright’s first “non-comedy”, which is not to say it doesn’t have jokes but they lie in the dialog and direction, rather than the events and visuals. Where his films have all been an empassioned genre homage, comedy provides a mask for it; the high-octane style of Hot Fuzz’s final car chase puncuated by the absurdity of winding English country roads and a swan. Here, there’s no such mask, and that alters my perception a lot.

While embracing to driving movies across decades, it’s mood feels placed most firmly at the turn-of-the-century. Your Point Breaks, Speed, Bad Boys and such exude entertainment, and didn’t pretend much more. Baby Driver has excessive charm and craft, but doesn’t try too hard to invent anything novel in its arc. There’s an enjoyable simplicity in that, but free of the comic veneer it creates an askew sense of not being so effectively timeless.

It’s timeless in that it feels like a new movie that resembles nothing else you’ll see this decade, triggering fresh emotions of films from our youth. You can’t help but lap up the love for genre and film itself that Wright constantly displays. But just as the film delights in familiar visual and dramatic tropes, so too its supporting characters. A recognizable array of gangsters on one side, and a woman on the other whose lack of self-determination was honestly quite shocking. Jamie Foxx entertainingly describes his role in the film as “a black man”. I don’t think he was really joking. Where the visual references and stylistic nod in a scene can be deft and uplifting as you spot them, the caricatures of the supporting characters flatten the movie a bit. The cast wasn’t huge, so you spend a lot of time with these people, and ultimately found myself uninspired and uninvested with them. That was a shame.

I feel bad for Lily James, though her presence and performance in the relationship was really very good, Debbie’s romance with Baby steps through the well trodden classical movie romance so reflexively the movie doesn’t take any time for rationale. She falls in love with the hero because he is the hero. It’s not even unenjoyable to watch, again as they share moods and moments reflective of genre, but if Baby can be afforded unique personal details like a deaf foster parent and odd hobbies, it left a gaping, uncomfortable hole that Debbie’s motivation for running away couldn’t be filled in, nor her unquestioning tolerance when eventually exposed to Baby’s crime and violence. These tropes were not timeless, but dated.

Perhaps it’s morejarring because CJ Jones sympathetic foster-father character of Joseph does break from the familiar. A deaf character (played tremendously by a deaf actor) challenges your presumptions really well. And yes, this interguing trait exists to highlight a defining detail of Baby’s character, but it still does it through a relationship that feels developed. If only the other characters were so solid.

I saw Edgar Wright talk at a Q&A here in San Francisco some years ago, taking questions between each of his Cornetto movies in a lengthy triple billing. Highly recommend catching him do that when he next comes to town; his work ethic and dedication to supporting his films (and others) is impressive, and he’s very good. On this occasion he was asked about the lack of well developed women in the Shaun/Fuzz/World’s End movies. Noteably absent from those endeavors was the writing of Jessica Hynes, who with Simon Pegg had written Spaced with a memorably well-balanced interchange between its two leads (Wright directed, but did not write, Spaced.) He remarked with some regret that the absence of a woman in the writing team does hurt that side of the work. It’s something of a shame that he hasn’t remedied that yet.

Even then, the Cornetto films centre around the intense friendship between Pegg and Nick Frost in the successive lead roles, gender aside they are films built about relationships. Baby Driver is pitched very directly as a love story, so in failing to apply itself to both characters it also doesn’t tell a human commitment story as well as, say, Hot Fuzz.

There’s a quite tedious tendancy in modern criticism to demand near total perfection from media. I think that’s wrong. I think we’re free to overlook whatever shortcomings of a movie we want. But, the odd choice to so heavily trope the cast in Baby Driver is something to overlook. And the flipside is that I can’t demand someone else overlook it the same way. It’s a blemish, even one that fits the style of the film in a significant way. And yet. And yet and yet, when the rest of the film is so well done, there’s a rising infuration that it didn’t do better. Is that backhanded praise?

The final aspect of Baby Driver that should be acknowledged is the music. Mostly because it’s the detail of the presentation that people rave about. They go as far as to pitch the movie as a musical (generous), or as a very long music video (very unfairly dismissive.) I think the thing I find odd is how novel it is made to sound, yet sound and music are perhaps the most consistent quality of Wright’s work. Zombies beaten with pool cues to the beat of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”, the percussion of car doors and handbrakes, the apocolyptic goth choir of Sisters of Mercy’s “This Corrosion”. Eclectic musical direction abounds. Baby Driver is a bigger application of the concept as the music is explicitly possessed by the character rather than just matched to choreography, but Scott Pilgrim took the whole thing further with original compositions.

Perhaps this is a consequence of making a bigger American movie, all those quirky British films don’t carry into the marketing junket. Regardless, the selections are eclectic and excellent, the execution and choreography is very, very tight.

And that’s that. Having finally got all these thoughts written out, I intend to go see the film again, since I know for sure that Wright’s direction will have been full of details and subtleties that I won’t have appreciated first time around.