I’m in exactly the perfect age bracket to be surrounded by the hype and frenzy for Edgar Wright’s latest Ant-Man–rebound passion project, the 2017 crime caper comedy Baby Driver. And I can’t say a lot of that acclaim it’s received is entirely undeserved, as a stylistic montage of car chase and foot chase setpieces soundtracked by some of the most body-jiving music you could ask a kid to listen to music older than him for, it is an absolute joy. It’s nothing exactly revelatory from either Wright (given his early Mint Royale’s “Blue Song” video feeling entirely recreated by the opening five minutes) or the car chase subgenre (‘cause y’know Mad Max: Fury Road, John Wick: Chapter Two, The Raid 2, and Nightcrawler literally just came out, y’all), it’s a candy-colored rhythmic distraction that is both fun and exciting as the demands of each scene go, from square on all the way to… well, all the way to close to the end, but well, let’s square with this before this and get the ugly stuff out of the way before I can return to what’s really good about Baby Driver.
I’m surrounded by dozens of calls by peers for it being a masterpiece or one of the best films of the year and I so very much wish I could side with that because I barely like Baby Driver as it is, when it spends most of that nearly two-hour runtime focusing less on the caper side of things and more on our protagonist getaway driver Baby’s (Ansel Elgort) quick courtings with waitress Deborah (Lily James). This is the first film that Wright has written on his own and without any actual source material to go on (I’ve heard the comparisons to The Driver and Drive, but Baby Driver feels so absolutely different than those) and the last two movies without the co-writing partnership Wright had with his previous muse Simon Pegg have been very informative. Wright finds a lot more free reign to play along with visuals and music in those than he kind of got to do with The Cornetto trilogy, but there’s also less believable humanity in those movies (I don’t wanna say heart, because come on, Wright clearly loves making movies) than when Pegg himself was dedicated to crafting and fully-fleshing out these characters, where we could see these characters however weird they are – Nicholas Angel the closest to caricature – living in the real world.
We get some of that in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World but not as much, we absolutely do not get that in Baby Driver, which is fine since that’s not the point. But it means James has so little material to work with – a brief backstory dump in a Laundromat attached to no real character beyond “likes baby and music” – and try as she might, she’s clearly struggling with having all these reactions coalesce into a compelling romantic lead rather than just in-the-moment acting.
Elgort, on the other hand, holy shit. He’s bad, people. The Divergent series, he was barely noticeable in a sea of vanilla performances. The Fault in Our Stars, he turned an on-paper joke of a character into a smug self-satisfied twerp. And Baby Driver just demands things out of him that he’s absolutely incapable of doing. When he’s first meeting Deborah, the lines coming out of Baby’s mouth are so delicately obtuse (in that self-protected way) that they need somebody who can provide them with sincere uncertainty and instead Elgort recites them with the smirking shallow satisfaction of a serial killer. When the movie gets much darker in its second half and the stakes escalate, Elgort’s idea of toughness is to pout his face as hard as he can and maintain that monotonously like a kid’s impression of Ryan Gosling in Drive. When he shares scenes with Baby’s foster father, he… Well, actually that’s one of the few moments Elgort actually is great, providing a personality that actually seems genuine and fun. I’m gonna be nice and not imply that’s only because he has a stellar scene partner in the one-man-show deaf actor CJ Jones.
Indeed, the supporting cast to those two lovebirds – namely the ones who inhabit Baby’s life of crime that threatens to interrupt his romance – are much better but not by much. Jon Bernthal plays “Douchebag” reliably again but is gone after one scene. Kevin Spacey likewise is inhabiting the kind of sardonic wise guy personality he can do in his sleep, but when the movie demands a fatherly warmth out of his character at the last minute, he has no clue what he’s doing and it’s a tonal whiplash from his preceding coldness. Jamie Foxx is certainly dangerous presence but he’s also replaying the same beats as Motherfucker Jones in Horrible Bosses, so that leaves Eiza Gonzalez and Jon Hamm as the last folks standing as a scene-stealing cocaine Bonnie and Clyde-esque couple and between the two of them, Hamm is the only one that gets enough screentime for us to see a whole person with his own tragic story going on.
Basically when the movie tries to get a story going on, it’s between weak (the crime side) to DOA (the romance), it doesn’t have the script or cast to support it. But when it gets to being just dances of camera, cuts, and drum beats, Wright has an enviable grip on tone and form that leaves on catching their breath after every chase and resembles a bunch of impromptu music videos with all the joy of that Mint Royale music video. The very opening credits is grooving one-shot stroll that feels light as a Nora Ephron comedy and the “Brighton Rock” finale is just a bone-shaking barrage of impacts that imperils the viewer alongside our hero, central to the film is a bicathlon of foot chases and car chases and gunfights from the busy streets of Atlanta and through a shopping mall and it is the most sophisticated and joyous action work of Wright’s career since Shaun of the Dead’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and a clear sign that Wright belongs in this atmosphere of popcorn movie homages, mixing its musical cues so wonderfully with the roar and squeals of the pursuits that the marriage feels natural and just sinks into the whole experience.
These are aesthetics that demands to be seen in a big screen with a big sound system in all the biggest senses and if it gets interrupted by a watery plot that’s hard to feel emotionally attached with, I can’t help shrugging that off. I’m very clearly in the minority on that script matter anyway so if you’re like the rest of the world, you won’t even need to shrug it off. You can very well leave Baby Driver with a bigger smile on your face than I did.