‘Baby Driver’ might not even be the biggest Hollywood movie hinged on car chases to hit screens this year, but it’s easily the most joyful flick spat out of the studio machine during popcorn season. Edgar Wright’s latest is a musical cinematic treat set to a killer playlist and featuring some of the most delightful action set-pieces in the career of a filmmaker who even turns teeth brushing into a manic montage.
The movie’s not particularly deep or fresh (even the title is an overt homage to a 1970s Walter Hill flick), but it’s guaranteed to send audiences skipping out of the theater on a cinematic sugar high.
Ansel Elgort stars as the titular Baby. He lives his life according to a series of playlists meticulously arranged on a collection of iPods. His job is as a getaway driver and he uses the music to give his high speed escapes a beat, as well as to drown out the hum left in his ears from a childhood tragedy. He also uses the music to turn daily activities into dance routines. He’s a cute kid. The getaway gig is the result of a debt to a criminal named Doc, played by Kevin Spacey at his snidest. Doc considers the kid his good luck charm, plopping him into jobs with a rotating cast of eccentric criminals including Jon Hamm and Eiza González’s psychotic lovebirds and Jamie Foxx’s tattooed lunatic. Baby isn’t committed to the life of crime. He just wants to get out of debt and have some musical fun behind the wheel. He finds a reason to finally escape this life in diner waitress Deborah (Lily James). It all seems great. But this is a heist movie, so you know he’ll soon be facing ones of those “last jobs” that don’t end well.
From the very beginning of his career, Edgar Wright has been an entertainment-driven director who plays best for critics and cult movie fanatics because his filmmaking is so delightfully self-aware on every level. ‘Baby Driver’ is quite clearly an attempt to deliver something more mainstream and poppy than his usual cult-courting games. However, even when shooting for the mainstream, the guy just can’t help himself. While those who don’t care about craft will just buckle up for a good metal-crunching time, those who pay attention will be rewarded by a candy-colored confection in which every shot, movement and edit is carefully orchestrated to music. The spine-tinglingly delightful pop soundtrack Wright arranged doesn’t just provide a soothing backbeat for the film, it drives almost every scene. Actors walk down the sidewalk with careful choreography, cars fly through streets like dancers in an old Hollywood musical, and even gunshots tend to ring out in time with the beat of the soundtrack. The movie couldn’t be more meticulously constructed in a way that’ll make movie nerds drool, even if it’s all in the name of light entertainment.
The plot is deliberately stripped down and simplistic. The actors are all playing archetypes, and the movie is so heightened and cartoony that the supporting players are given plenty of room to play. Kevin Spacey snarls out his dialogue with a puckish glee that he hasn’t shown in years. John Hamm and Eiza González almost steal away the movie as sociopathic killers that you can’t help but love. Jamie Foxx juggles threatening and frightening tones with such ease that you never know what to expect from him in any scene.
The supporting cast are so damn delightful that it’s almost a shame the leads are so dull. Ansel Elgort and Lily James are certainly as beautiful and charming as the film requires, but their characters just don’t have much depth. Elgort gets some tragic backstory to play out, but he’s mostly a blank slate in a deliberate homage to Walter Hill’s minimalist action classic ‘The Driver’ (a ’70s cult film that also directly inspired Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’). James is essentially just a sweetheart plot device. It’s not a problem for most of the film as Wright defines it by musical montage and heist movie mechanics, but when the script transforms entirely to their story in the finale, things fall flat. Wright’s always had a problem ending his movies and ‘Baby Driver’ sputters out rather than taking off, which is a shame.
Thankfully, a dull central love story and anticlimactic finale aren’t enough to derail all the joys of the film. Working with a fraction of the budget of a ‘Fast and Furious’ flick, Wright delivers some of the finest car chases, shootouts, and action sequences to hit screens in years. He does it with the craft and impact of action classics along with the style and grace of Hollywood musicals.
Like every single Edgar Wright picture, ‘Baby Driver’ is above all else a love letter to the movies. In this case, it’s a blindingly bright joyride through heist movie bliss executed with magical mixture of visual and musical rhythm typically reserved for cinematic musicals. The movie explodes off the screen and seduces viewers into smiling brightly back at all the silliness that the filmmaker can muster. Few directors have the ability to turn comedic genre movies into masterful explorations of film craft like this guy. ‘Baby Driver’ highlights all of Wright’s filmmaking strengths (and screenwriting weaknesses) in a way that should make his fans giddy while also pleasing those who turn out just for a goofy action romp. One day, Wright will use all of his skills for something more meaningful. For now, we can just sit back and enjoy the ride.