Movie Review: “Baby Driver”

by Michael Henley

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a kid who loves his music. As befitting a movie named after him, Baby appears in pretty much every single scene of Baby Driver, the new movie from Edgar Wright. And in pretty much every scene, Baby usually has earpods squeezed into his cranium, blasting his personal megamix of tunes from his old fashioned IPod. Sometimes he’ll switch things up and blast from the car stereo. When he’s in pleasant company, he’ll throw on an LP, but just crank it loud. Music is the sea in which he swims, and oftentimes he’ll cherry-pick a song and then its rhythms will dictate his micro-actions. He’s a man of simple pleasures, but he’s not simple, and he seems to take a bit of pleasure in proving his compatriots wrong when they peg him as distracted. He’s focused. There’s a difference.

There’s a reason why Baby’s behavior is tolerated within the criminal riff-raff that he reluctantly counts as his employers, and that’s because he’s the best getaway driver there is. We see this in a remarkable opening sequence in which Baby, behind the wheel of an idling car, finger-drums through the opening minutes of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms,” before picking up his charges and speeding through the city of Atlanta in an exhilarating car chase that Baby conducts with superb skill and wicked improvisational ingenuity. With the coast clear, Baby and the thieves return to their hideout, which is lorded over by their boss, a kingpin named Doc (Kevin Spacey, never better at projecting casual, disaffected arrogance). Even post-heist, Baby’s detached attitude is greeted with puzzled looks and glares, but Doc keeps them in line and is protective of the boy. Up to a point.

The thieves themselves, who are always a different mix every time Doc plans a score, are your usual gallery of cutthroats. There are the lovebirds (Jon Hamm, Eiza González), who seem like fallen sophisticates halfway play-acting at tough guy talk. There’s the surly troublemaker (Jon Berenthal) who takes things too seriously. And then there’s the crazy, unpredictable troublemaker (Jamie Foxx) who is kinda dumb but thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room, and is usually willing to fix any disagreement with violence. And then there’s your bit players who serve a function or two, sometimes just to show what a bloody and careless world that Baby has bought into. Like many movie criminals, he’s a guy who is clinging to the belief that he has one last job left before he can leave the life behind, and also that he’s morally above the ugly side of the business. Also like many movie criminals, he’s wrong about both.

But of course where would a story like this be without a girl? There is one, Debora (Lily James,) who waits at a nearby diner and her purpose in the story is to fall in love with the mono-syllabic Baby, energize him with a boost of momentum to break him out of his routine, provide a weakness that criminals can exploit as the third-act noose tightens, and throughout it all flash a winning smile. But no matter; falling into Debora’s orbit allows Baby to trade tunes with her (there’s a sweet scene where they switch ipods in a laundromat and just listen, the clothes behind them swirling like swaying backup dancers). And then when Doc, in typical mob-boss style, betrays Baby’s trust in playing fair with his future, Baby decides to make a break for it and wants Debora to come.

That’s basically the plot, and it’s a pretty underwhelming one. What makes the movie sing is not its writing but in its surefooted direction, which crackles and hums with vision and joy. Baby’s omnipresent earphones, after all, are a way to sell a pretty killer soundtrack, right? (The Guardians of the Galaxy say “hi,” by the way.) But it’s more than that; it’s how the world itself, owing more than a little to movie musicals, settles into a role of constant counterpoint to Baby’s endless playlist.

I mentioned the laundromat scene, but how about a chase sequence set to Focus’ “Hocus Pocus,” where everything acts in time to the music, right down to the thwip-thwip-thwip of Baby’s legs as he leaps across outdoor café tables? Or a weapons-deal-gone-south where every rat-a-tat bullet arrives in perfect syncopation with Button Down Brass’ cover of “Tequila?” The whole movie is like that, at varying intensity levels, and before long the effect is dizzying. Not for nothing is a choreographer listed in the opening titles, and you’ll understand why after watching pretty much any five minutes of the movie, which thrums with energy and fetishistic detail, all the while being edited to within an inch of its life. After a few blockbusters this summer where it felt like the filmmakers didn’t care what got on screen, here’s something on the opposite end of the spectrum: one where every single detail has been thought out, and the more throwaway they seem, the more work went into them. In terms of construction and its making, this is a Swiss watch of a movie.

This should not be a surprise to students of Edgar Wright, the director, who also made the brilliant “Cornetto” movie-spoof trilogy (2004’s Shaun of the Dead, 2007’s Hot Fuzz and 2013’s The World’s End) with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. This is only Wright’s fifth feature (the missing link is 2010’s wonderful, wonderful Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) but he brings such energy and verve you’d think he’d been making movies for multiple decades. Baby Driver is, love it or hate it, an expression of pure unfiltered vision, so much so that it elicits no surprise to hear that he’s been working on this screenplay for decades, waiting for resources and music clearances to finally line up.

But what Baby Driver lacks, it must be said, is heart. This hasn’t been a problem in the past—even in the genre-trapping shenanigans of Shaun and its ilk, Wright has always been terrific at staffing his features with real-feeling people grappling with sincere problems even while beset by crises fantastical. The problem with Baby Driver is that the story is pretty cliché (fans of Michael Mann or 70’s crime thrillers will not be worked hard) and the love story feels more like a sketch of one. There’s a slight hollowness that rings through the enterprise, bringing it closer than I would have liked to the pitfall that Wright has up until now avoided: a gimmick movie.

The actors do everything they can. Elgort makes a fine-enough-I-suppose leading man, and although James mainly is asked to look pretty and/or worried, she’s great at doing both. She’s also good at other things, and one day Hollywood might realize that, but small steps. Of the criminals, Spacey has fun (and I liked the very casual and businesslike way he deploys threats), but the only standout is Jamie Foxx, having fun in the role of the unpredictable a-hole whose pride is too big to tolerate being second-guessed, even when it saves him from doing something stupid. Hamm is suitably gruff and menacing, and Gonzalez brings a pinch of sexiness to the other half of their pair of criminal lovebirds (they both have matching “His” and “Hers” neck tattoos), but in both of the movie’s key romances, the obvious comparison to violence-soaked star-crossed love might arguably be Tony Scott’s True Romance. In that movie the characters felt stylized, but like persuasive characters, and they had real conversations and made us care about their love. All I can say is that for both love stories here, this is not that.

Is this is a detriment? Not as much as you might think, not really. For pretty much the entire run, Baby Driver is a solidly enjoyable wind-up toy of a movie, and it delivers some stylish action and some killer tracks. It’s just that the artifice peaks through just a little more than I wanted for an Edgar Wright movie, and it provides a slightly shallower experience. At one point, Baby and Debora are sharing pop culture knowledge, and while Debora bemoans the lack of many songs devoted to her name, there’s no shortage of “Baby” songs out there. And she’s right. In fact, one shows up at the very end: a Simon-and-Garfunkel song you may know called…you guessed it. “Baby Driver.” I’ll cling to my faith that Edgar Wright didn’t reverse engineer the entire movie so that it could be named after that song. That would, y’know, be gimmicky.

Sony Pictures presents a film written and directed by Edgar Wright. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nira Park. Musical score by Steven Price. Photographed by Bill Pope. Edited by Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss. Production designed by Marcus Rowland. Starring Ansel Elgort, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx.