They call it Baby Driver, and once upon a pair of wheels, Edgar Wright hit the road and was gone, zooming a full two chevrons ahead of most other action-comedies you’re likely to see this year. Read on to see what Owen Hughes thought of this toe-tapping caper.
Listeners of last week’s podcast may have gotten the distinct impression that we here at Failed Critics quite enjoyed British director Edgar Wright‘s comedic action thriller. Well, that’s probably because we here at Failed Critics quite enjoyed Edgar Wright’s comedic action thriller!
Smush together one handful of Premium Rush and one handful of Drive into a cassette-shaped combo, throw it through a stained glass window depicting a scene from Death Proof and have it land directly in a boombox located somewhere at the back of a Heart Foundation charity shop where they keep all the second hand CDs of forgotten classics. What will blast out of the speakers at full volume, straight into your earholes, is a sound that vaguely resembles something akin to Baby Driver.
Wearing headphones connected to any one of a number of different iPods fit for different occasions, playing a selection of Awesome™ tunes to drown out his tinnitus, Baby (Ansel Elgort) acts as an unwilling getaway driver for Doc’s (Kevin Spacey) gang of bank-robbing misfits (Jamie Foxx, John Hamm and Eiza González). Frankly, if the plot summary ended there, it wouldn’t make any difference to you. All you need to know is that Baby drives cars really well, and is obliged to help out his surrogate father-figure. Oh, and there’s the girl, Debora (Lily James), who looks like a zebra.
More crucial than the plot – and possibly more crucial than the characters themselves – is Baby Driver‘s soundtrack. It’s no exaggeration when reviewers comment that this is in fact a musical, albeit one without original compositions. Every inch of this film has been choreographed to within a second of various tracks, from a car chase set to Neat Neat Neat by The Damned, to our introduction to Baby, waiting in the driver’s seat miming along with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Bellbottoms. The minimal plotting and largely shallow vessels for characters are sideswiped by exciting action sequences bathed in a groovy soundtrack and vibrant visuals. It doesn’t even matter that the term “style-over-substance” is bandied around this movie willy nilly, because the style is 90% of the substance.
The story is a fairly conventional boy-meets-girl scenario played out alongside screeching tires and guttural engine revs straight out of 70’s detective thrillers, but you shouldn’t let it bug you. Baby Driver is a joyride in a flashy sports car with a large overflowing coke wedged between your legs, and not a cruise-controlled drive in a Prius with a decaf skinny latte nestled in the cupholder. It’s brash, slick, full of call-backs and little snippets that are probably only going to make sense on rewatches; and, most of all, it’s damn cool.
The main obstacle for Baby Driver to overcome is that it is so hip that it will inevitably annoy people with its smarmy knowing nods and winks. The TV adverts and trailers brandish it as a loud, obnoxious (or even smug), throwaway popcorn-muncher made for hipsters. In some ways, it is obnoxious and vain; but it’s hardly the vacuous circle jerk it has been portrayed as in some quarters, and it’s no less entertaining because of it. Wright’s direction has a punchy pace about it that syncs with the score perfectly. The stunts are all performed with real vehicles. No magic mirror trickery or green screens were involved, which just fuels the adrenaline ride that the chase scenes end up being.
Fans of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World will find the zany humour has dropped down a gear or two, but it’s still very funny. You’ve probably never been happier to see Mike Myers’s face in anything – not since his beefed-up cameo role in 2009’s Inglorious Basterds anyway – than when he pops up (so to speak) in one of the finer comedic moments. The cast all play off each other like old mates having a laugh. If there was tension involved in the shooting of this picture, it is not at all obvious in the final product.
My only gripe with Elgort is that he sometimes struggles to really look convincing during the more emotional moments opposite his co-star Lily James. The two don’t scream natural chemistry. However, Elgort does exert enough natural charisma and charm to see him sail through practically every scene regardless, bringing up James with him – who herself is actually fine, really. As I say, a minor gripe. The support cast around Elgort all bring something extra to the party, even if they adhere very closely to the conventions of their stereotypical character types. Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González) play out a psychotic (albeit sometimes reasonable) double act that couldn’t be more typical of the genre unless Buddy wore a plain white t-shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled up into his sleeve. I would’ve preferred to have seen more of Jamie Foxx who steals every scene he appears in. He would outshine all of his colleagues in terms of his acting chops, if it were not for the fact that Spacey also happens to share a number of scenes with him.
Critics have brought up the fact that Baby Driver doesn’t pass the Bechdel test (i.e. no two female characters hold an independent conversation that isn’t about a man). If you consider that a problem, then it is a legitimate stick to beat the film with. Do I personally think the film shows a lack of respect to female characters, actors and songwriters (given over 80% of the songs used don’t feature women)? No, not really. In the world this film is set, it’s sure as Hell a masculine place to be. Could Wright (who wrote as well as directed this) have improved the film in this particular regard? Of course. Virtually every film could stand to improve a touch in this area. Maybe if I was female, I might find it more grating. The fact it didn’t enter my consciousness whilst I sat in my cinema seat, grinning away at the ludicrously over-the-top action scenes, probably says more about me than anything else.
Wright hasn’t made a film to please everyone. If it was altered to become more broadly appealing, Baby Driver would instantly lose its soul and purpose for being. Call it a passion project, call it a vanity project, call it whatever you want. It’s fine to dislike it. It’s fine to wish it were better. It’s fine to prefer strong narratives to all other aspects in the films you normally watch. It doesn’t matter. Baby Driver is not for you specifically; it’s not for me specifically either, given that I’m not usually partial to musicals of any kind (jukebox or otherwise). I couldn’t tell you who its for, other than Edgar Wright, and that’s absolutely fine with me because it’s fun.