Film Review: Edgar Wright’s ‘Baby Driver’

Baby Driver
Courtesy of Wilson Webb

'Shaun of the Dead' director Edgar Wright builds an entire heist movie around the notion of a getaway driver who steers to the beat of his own playlist.

With “Baby Driver,” Edgar Wright believes he has made a movie about music, about the way that some people absolutely, positively require music in their lives. But “Baby Driver” is actually a movie about obsession — a rowdy heist movie-cum-romance, to be precise — about a guy named Baby who has different iPods depending on his mood, who hardly ever takes his earbuds out, whose favorite singer was his mother (now deceased), and who falls in love with a diner waitress who reminds him of dear old mom.

Like all Edgar Wright movies, “Baby Driver” is a blast, featuring wall-to-wall music and a surfeit of inspired ideas. But it’s also something of a mess, blaring pop tunes of every sort as it lurches between rip-roaring car chases, colorful pre-caper banter, and a twee young-love subplot — to the extent that the movie will resonate most with audiences that skew young, hip, and, like its helmer and its hero (the latter played by baby-faced “The Fault in Our Stars” star Ansel Elgort), more than a little obsessive.

In real life, obsession can be an unflattering trait. In movie characters, however, it’s golden, resulting in single-minded protagonists who are crystal clear about what they want, leaving little room for conflict or contradiction to distract from their goals. Baby’s a lot like rabid B-movie connoisseur Clarence Worley in the Quentin Tarantino-scripted “True Romance,” or fellow Elvis devotee Sailor Ripley in David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart”: Such obsessive characters prove intensely passionate, slightly crazy, and as committed to their women as they are to the quirks that preoccupy them the rest of the time.

For Baby, that would be music and cars — though it’s anyone’s guess how he came to be such an expert on either. Wright introduces Baby behind the wheel of a souped-up red Subaru. Boosting an idea from his own 2003 music video for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song,” during the first bank hit, Wright remains parked outside with the kid, listening to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” while the rest of the team (Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, and Eiza González) rob the joint. When the gang comes running back to the car, Baby cranks up the volume and peels off for one of the most satisfying chase sequences in recent memory.

Like a slightly mellower version of Ryan Gosling’s stoic “Drive” wheel man, Elgort proves adorably awkward around women, especially Lily James’ character, Debora. (Ladies just love a damaged-goods guy like Baby, with his childhood trauma, mommy issues, and bad-boy streak.) Prone to singing Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” while she works, Debora complains that there are no good ballads written for girls with her name, and he introduces her to an exception by T. Rex. Still, “you have us all beat,” she tells Baby. “Every song is about you.”

That may be true, but because Baby is now thoroughly, obsessively in love, every song may as well be about her in his mind. Though he can’t hear, the deaf old black man who serves as Baby’s foster dad (played by CJ Jones) instantly picks up on the shift in Baby’s playlist. And yet, on account of some longstanding debt to a smart-alecky criminal named Doc (Kevin Spacey), Baby isn’t free to drive off into the sunset with Debora — “to head west … in a car I can’t afford with a plan I don’t have” — at least, not yet.

Baby still has one last heist to handle for Doc, and this gig is complicated by a loose cannon who calls himself “Bats” (Jamie Foxx). Technically, all of Doc’s foot soldiers are in some way unhinged, and Wright exploits their unpredictability to suggest that even a small snafu on one of Baby’s runs could end badly for any and everyone involved. And so the heist half of “Baby Driver” plays like one of those wildly eccentric ’90s-era crime movies, à la Doug Liman’s “Go” or pretty much anything from Tarantino at that time.

Baby comes across borderline autistic is most social situations, but put him behind the wheel of a car, and he’s a nimble, fast-acting pilot, steering his manual-transmission getaway vehicle out of nearly any bind. Once the backbone of any decent drive-in experience, car chases have all but disappeared from action movies these days, leaving a wide-open niche for “Baby Driver” to fill — and fill it Wright does, to the brink of bursting and then some, with a mostly clever collection of jokes, sudden narrative U-turns, and aptly picked songs (including the Simon and Garfunkel track that gives the film its name).

But is that enough? As in Wright’s adaptation of the video-game-themed graphic novel “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” this explosively entertaining lark occasionally feels like someone smoking in a fireworks factory, where all that potential could go horribly awry as Wright gets carried away with his own ingenuity. By the time the film’s final heist rolls around, both Baby and the audience are ready to move on, rooting more for his romance with Debora than whatever happens with Doc’s latest scheme, this one to relieve the Post Office of a few million dollars in money-order slips.

For this unexpectedly dangerous job, Doc pairs Baby with Hamm and Foxx’s characters, obliging them to buy fresh weapons from a shady gun-runner played by pint-sized songwriter Paul Williams — and before you know it, the entire job is off on the wrong foot and accelerating fast in a potentially disastrous direction. Previously, there had never really been stakes to any of Baby’s outings, but now that Debora has entered the picture, Wright has given us something to root for.

Now, instead of simply being a weird kid with a savant-like sense for music, he’s a modern-day Romeo, a watered-down version of the one Leonardo DiCaprio played two decades back. And much as Baz Luhrmann did in that contemporary retelling, by setting this wacky genre-straddling exercise to music — songs that either accentuate or ironically subvert the expected tone of any given scene — Wright manages to stitch together wildly inventive, yet otherwise incongruous scenes that wouldn’t otherwise have any business appearing in the same movie. Typically, directors pick the soundtrack to suit what is happening on screen, but in this case, Wright’s obsessive hero seems to be deejaying his own life, using music to decide his fate.

Film Review: Edgar Wright's 'Baby Driver'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Headliners), March 11, 2017. Running time: 113 MIN.

Production

A Sony Pictures release of a TriStar Pictures, MRC presentation of a Working Title, Big Talk Pictures production. Producers: Nira Park, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. Executive producers: Edgar Wright, Rachael Prior, James Biddle, Adam Merims, Liza Chasin, Michelle Wright.

Crew

Director, writer; Edgar Wright. Camera (color): Bill Pope. Editors: Paul Machliss, Jonathan Amos. Music: Steven Price.

With

Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez, Flea, Sky Ferreira, Lanny Joon.

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  1. Batman says:

    “Baby comes across borderline autistic is most social situations, but put him behind the wheel of a car, and he’s a nimble, fast-acting pilot”

    …that’s a curious “but”. Why is there a but? He’s autistic BUT he can drive well? Despite being autistic, he is good at a thing he must be good at since the film is predicated on that ability?

    But.

    Should his autism preclude him from being able to drive well?

  2. I’ve seen a lot of movies in my 52 years and this was the best, most fun, and creative major film since seeing Pulp Fiction in the theaters 22 years ago. I left the theater with that same exciting feeling as though I’d seen something original that is so rare today. This movie clearly broke new ground that will be copied for the next decade. As a person with tinnitus that works with headphones and music (albeit in an office), I loved the very real reference that is skipped over in the reviews to paint Baby as simply a music loving millennial rather than someone trying to deal with the terms of life dealt to them. Also loved all the classic movie references, like a Burt Reynolds/Steve McQueen movie mixed vigorously with a less vulgar David Lynch. Car chases, which have become trite and unwatchable in action films, were the most interesting in years with actual creativitity brought to an otherwise overdone theme.

  3. Guy says:

    Y’all are full of yourselves……..GREAT MOVIE. From an older middle-aged conservative.

  4. Bluesrock70 says:

    Spot on critique/anaylsis. Movie was worthy of my time and money.

  5. jim Whitemarsh says:

    This review was right on. I have seen this movie three times already and will see it a few times more. Since I’m 71 years old and have won in a triumph spitefire at Laguna Seca in 1973 I know alittle bit about what you can really do with a car. The movie makes Steve McQueen and Bullitt now my second choice. Bring on the sequel.

  6. Jane says:

    Was naming the character “Baby” a nod to “Dirty Dancing?”

  7. Jane says:

    Man, that Ansel Elgort is adorable- and I am almost old enough to be his grandmother. Movie had shades of LALA Land to it.. Is this the trend? Violence at end was over the top and gratuitous. Still. Mr. Elgort is going to go very, very far.

  8. Elizabeth Rowell says:

    My ears are still ringing. I had to leave the movie, in pain. Was sitting in second row. The previews were unbearably loud. And then the movie-just about as loud. I do NOT want a “hum and am upset. Should have left before I did. What is up with the people showing the previews and movies? Just crazy. It was an AND in NYC….and I don’t understand. I’m angry about it.

    • Elizabeth Rowell says:

      I do have grammar: “hum” in quotes. And A M C. Apologies. I never comment on anything. Am baffled as to why (I can see why, even if I can’t hear, now) any theater, producer, director would want this incredibly, painfully loud volume. That whole preamble-I should have watched it from home in the future and NOT left home, in the rain, to go to theater. The preview volume was at mind boggling decibel level. Good way to drive the audience out, if you ask me.

  9. lindsey says:

    i liked the car scenes but this movie is too long and the soundtrack that drives it isn’t outstanding (no pun). i personally don’t think Wright has made a great movie since Shaun of the Dead. like Snyder he’s technically superb and visually inventive but I’m not interested in his storytelling

  10. dee says:

    Nice try on the “hip” and “ethy” song themes …..but this movie is a flop. Especially when some of the actors are as stiff and boring as Gal Gadot. This movie is a die hard flop no matter how desperate “liberal” SM is trying so hard in promoting this crap. Smart consumers WIN.

  11. bbmaddox says:

    this was mostly terrible hambone acting and insipid dialogue. baby was good, though.

  12. Geralt Clout says:

    Saw it last night. Entertaining enough at times, but mostly too clever by half, and I found the protagonist to be utterly boring. I know they were going for the “cool/quiet type”, but instead he was just “boring/mute” for most of the movie. I had no reason to care what happened to any of the characters, and all the snappy one liners and clever references were simply distracting and eye rollingly on the nose. I was perplexed that the movie has received such widespread critical acclaim. It’s a perfectly fine film, but I would have thought it would have hovered somewhere between 2 and 3 stars, not 3 and 4.

  13. Tom Siebert says:

    Saw it at a preview earlier this week w/ my 15 year old son. We both thought it was terrific–a genre pic with fresh style and verve, loaded with interesting characters played by magnetic actors delivering snappy dialog. Hope this becomes summer’s big sleeper hit.

  14. Tel... says:

    So it’s yet another movie in the latest line of movies that use a song title as its inspiration for existing (Kiss’ “Baby Driver”) and attempts to have us accept a pajama boy as this generation’s Steve McQueen?
    Won’t be seeing it and I’ll even give you a prediction…it will bomb.

  15. Elle says:

    I saw the trailer for this in the theaters recently and thought it was a spoof of something. It looks as stupid as the title sounds.

  16. Jay says:

    You forgot to make a joke about Ansel Elgort’s fake career as a DJ

  17. Missed opportunity by not making every character a [ insert whatever ]

  18. stevenkovacs says:

    Is this a movie or a bad dream??

  19. James Kent says:

    Lilly James and not Lilly Collins as in the review

  20. anna says:

    Lily James, not Lily Collins.

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