Editor’s Note: Baby Driver is currently playing in wide theatrical release.
In an alternate universe, Edgar Wright (The Cornetto Trilogy, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Spaced) would have directed Ant-Man, Ant-Man would have become an even bigger commercial and critical hit than it was two years ago, and Wright would have moved on bigger and better projects with even more creative control, in our out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Unfortunately, we live in a universe where Wright lost the directing gig on Ant-Man only a few months before the start of principal photography, leading Wright to refocus on a long-gestating passion project, Baby Driver, a jukebox-musical/heist film centered on a twenty-something with a tragic backstory, an iPod-fueled music obsession, and driving skills verging on the superhuman, supernatural, or the fantastical. The title character isn’t a superhero, but he might as well be, especially given the wish-fulfillment/fairy tale elements intentionally interwoven into Baby Driver.
Even with Baby Driver’s emphasis on real car stunts over CGI-augmented stunts, it inevitably slides and drifts away from the heightened realism of the first scene into near fantasy, and takes a slow side in neutral downhill into surface-gloss entertainment.
Wright smartly drops the audience into the action sans exposition or explanation (that comes later). To the chaotic, discordant sounds of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms,” Baby (Ansel Elgort), evades Atlanta’s finest, safely delivering his cargo, Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza González), and Griff (Jon Bernthal), to a safe house where criminal mastermind/heist meister Doc (Kevin Spacey), debriefs the team. Wright mixes a visually dense shots, rapid-fire edits, perfectly timed to the song, to wildly exhilarating effect, but before long Baby Driver settles in a calmer, more focused, if narratively superficial story centered on Baby’s attempt to leave the criminal life behind – he’s all but clear of a major debt he owes Doc – and dreaming of running away with the friendly neighborhood waitress, Debora (Lily James). Less a character than an idea of a character or a sketch (a not atypical problem in Wright’s films, forgivable in comedy, less forgivable in other genres), Debora dreams of leaving her dull, boring life behind for a continent-spanning adventure.
Elevated by a foot chase, but brought back to ground by inconsistent characterization and one influence too many and a B&W, ‘50’s-era pop fantasy sequence –not to mention a steady stream of pop, rock, funk/soul songs — Baby Driver ultimately flounders under the weight of Wright’s pop-culture obsessions.
Baby quickly falls for Debora – or rather the idea of Debora – less who she is as an individual than what she represents to him (in a bit of solipsism), an escape from the criminal life, a bland, comforting, practically sexless domesticity. Nothing really connects Baby to Atlanta except his tragic past (an accident that left him an orphan and a permanent case of tinnitus), his wheelchair-bound, deaf foster father, Joseph (CJ Jones), and the debt he owes Doc for inadvertently stealing from a crime boss. But finally “getting straight” with Doc (“one more heist and we’re straight”) means little when Doc strong-arms Baby, his self-proclaimed good-luck charm, to continue serving as his wheelman on future heists. Even with Baby Driver’s emphasis on real car stunts over CGI-augmented stunts, it inevitably slides and drifts away from the heightened realism of the first scene into near fantasy, with Baby – true to his nickname – all but saved from the consequences of his actions, Atlanta stripped of its identity as a predominantly African-American city, and Debora relegated to neutered romantic object. Baby Driver takes a slow side in neutral downhill into surface-gloss entertainment.
Wright has cited the Holy Trinity of ‘90s heist films, Point Break, Reservoir Dogs, and Heat, as central influences on Baby Driver, but it’s also obvious Wright drew inspiration from Walter Hill’s 1978 existential car-chase classic, The Driver, but colored with a dash of romanticism that brings Baby Driver closer in approach and tone to the Quentin Tarantino-scripted, Tony Scott-directed True Romance or its earlier precursor, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde. Unfortunately, Wright’s impressive aptitude for staging, directing, and editing set pieces doesn’t extend to the characters (thin), dialogue (functional), or a last third that leaves Baby Driver’s verisimilitude behind for male-oriented fantasy. Elevated by a foot chase (Point Break), but brought back to ground by inconsistent characterization and one influence too many (The Terminator), and a B&W, ‘50’s-era pop fantasy sequence, not to mention a steady stream of pop, rock, funk/soul songs, Baby Driver ultimately flounders under the weight of Wright’s pop-culture obsessions. Until Baby Driver gets to that point, however, it serves as a welcome, if non-essential, reminder of Wright’s talents and skills as a “best of his generation” filmmaker.
Starting out fun and exciting, Baby Driver ultimately descends into cliche, and flounders under the weight of Edgar Wright’s pop-culture obsessions.