Film Review: ‘Baby Driver’

'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.

Baby Driver
Courtesy of Wilson Webb

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: ‘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.