Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Baby Driver is High Octane Energy That Slips Gears

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Baby Driver is a smart, fun, inventive car chase/musical/crime thriller that is great fun until it isn’t. Edgar Wright is a master of taking a genre and deconstructing it. Many directors deconstruct genres but with Wright there’s a heedless joy involved that others lack.

The problem is sooner or later cracks begin to show. Wright has always had the seemingly magic ability to both deconstruct a genre while also giving us a sincere and faithful story of said genre. Maybe he still does and I’m just growing weary.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the wheelman for Doc (Kevin Spacey). Doc is the type of criminal who sits around devising elaborate foolproof heists with drop off points, code names, and code words to be used over burner phones. Baby is Doc’s reluctant lucky charm.

Doc uses a different team every time. He may reuse certain people but never the same combo. Such as Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) a duo of lovers more akin to Sid and Nancy than Bonnie and Clyde. Or Griff (Jon Bernthal) a gruff volatile man who dislikes Baby because nothing seems to bother him.

A number of jobs are pulled off throughout the movie, all with different crews. The only constant being Doc and Baby. Baby and his ear buds. As Doc tells us succinctly, “He has tinnitus. He had an accident as a kid. Listens to the music to drown the hum and the drum.”

Thus we are treated to numerous car chases that are an absolute joy to behold. The blend of rubber burning and music choices make Baby Driver a rare treat: an action musical. If nothing else Wright’s technical mastery is a testament to his abilities not as a technician but as an artist.

The way Wright edits the film in tempo with the sixties funk rock playing on the soundtrack is exacting as it is painstaking. He cuts with the tempo, characters talk and walk to the beat and time of the music. It’s all so gloriously fun and delightful I wish I was more ensorcelled by it all as opposed as to being just impressed with the work that went into it.

Baby Driver falters in one area, well a few areas, but one area in particular. The casting of Ansel Elgort as Baby. Elgort is sorely miscast as Baby. Baby requires a tightrope performance and Elgort seems to suffer from vertigo throughout most of the film. He’s not horrible so much as boring. Elgort does make a go of it and from time to time he succeeds in bringing Baby to life.

One scene in particular is a favorite of mine. Baby and Deborah (Lilly James), a waitress he’s fallen for at a local coffee shop, go on a date to a laundromat. Together they share earbuds and listen to “Debora” by T. Rex. The background is a wall of washing machines washing bright colored clothes as the two waltz around the laundromat. It’s a sweet, gorgeous, lovely moment.

The problem with Elgort’s casting is that he has trouble maintaining a cool exterior. We tend to underestimate how hard it is to look disinterested while being interesting. At times Elgort is really good, at others he’s fine, but mostly he’s just off.

This is made even more distinctive by the amazing cast Wright has surrounded Elgort with. Hamm and Gonzalez make for a wonderfully beautiful and insane couple. Their evolution from thrill seekers to unhinged psychopaths with a grudge is one of my favorites in the movie.

But the MVP has to go to Jamie Foxx as Bats. Foxx is an immensely likable actor with seemingly bottomless charisma. His performance is a masterclass of taking all that and making you viscerally hate him. He’s the bull in the china shop. Like a trickster god he has a talent for taking routine situations and transforming them into life threatening disasters that only spirals into more chaos with every turn.

Spacey’s Doc is the eye of the storm. The master and commander of every operation. Spacey is so damn good that it’s easy to forget just how great he is. Listen to how he handles the exposition, how he makes it feel like he’s just talking to someone while also giving you vital information and character background. He has a crisp way of delivering his lines with a force of confidence. Spacey makes his dialogue seem less like it was written and more like he thought of it himself.

All of them are pitch perfect. It’s Baby’s story that felt forced to me. The accident that gave Baby his tinnitus, also took the life of his parents. He lives with his deaf foster father Morse (Morse Diggs) in an apartment. He also records snippets of conversations and mixes them into audio tapes. Wright doesn’t choose to focus on the father-son relationship between Morse and Baby though.

Instead Wright chooses to focus on Baby’s somewhat creepy courtship of Deborah. Lily James, a Brit, who speaks in a melodramatic exaggerated Southern accent has enough charm and charisma to pull it off.  But the whole relationship between the two seems careless and oddly asexual at best.

The asexual part would actually be an intriguing angle to showcase but it’s clear Wright thinks there’s some kind of sizzling chemistry there. James smiles and laughs but we get the feeling her vacuousness comes from the script and not the actress playing her. James performance is so sincere and vulnerable it’s a pity she has nothing to do but wait for Baby to arrive on screen.

Edgar Wright is a talented, passionate, and deeply knowledgeable filmmaker. It’s too bad his women are never nearly as cool, hip, or emotionally complicated as his men. James and Gonzalez are each forces of nature in their own way. The problem is they’re either a hurricane of sex and untamed eroticism or a shy quiet timid thing awaiting to be ravished.  

All of this is complicated by a third act that systematically abuses our suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. Characters begin to take on the powers of Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th series. Blessed with the ability to be in one place, have the camera pan off them for a second, only to appear in places they could not possibly be in.

Pile onto all that the moment in which Baby’s real name is revealed and Baby Driver crescendos into exasperation. There is so much I love about this movie. The problem is the stuff I don’t love happens to be the main drive of the movie. All in all I had a great time and saw a really good movie. I just wish I had seen a great one.

Image courtesy of TriStar Pictures


  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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