‘Baby Driver’ Is Long on Style, and That Ain’t Totally Bad

In terms of a hot, sticky-tar car chase film for a summer night, you could do worse.

By Dorothy Woodend 7 Jul 2017 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

A little style goes a long way. Sometimes it can even get you across the finish line.

Edgar Wright’s new film Baby Driver is long on style, and in this season of summer bummer releases (I’m looking at you, The Beguiled), that is all right and only a few shades of wrong.

Wright has been making this movie for a while. The opening sequence is lifted, almost in its entirety, from a 2003 music video featuring a dream team of Mighty Boosh alums Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt, as well as Nick Frost and Michael Smiley, late of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

Does everyone in England know each other, one might well ask? The same faces have a habit of popping up on their friend’s television programs. Nathan Barley, an early vehicle of Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror) featured Fielding, Barratt, and Richard Ayoade. The Spaced gang has been memorably involved in most of Wright’s oeuvre (the Cornetto Trilogy).

I mention this because Baby Driver is also replete with familiar faces, references, direct borrowings, and cameos. Everyone from Killer Mike to Paul Williams, Walter Hill and the ATL Twins pop up. The inside jokes, and the outside ones, fly fast and furious. But among all the tongue-in-cheek homage and squealing tires, is there an actual story?

Well, yes and no. The overwhelming amount of style occasionally threatens to obliterate the frail architecture upon which the film is hung. Who cares about narrative arc when you have smoking tires and a soundtrack that could burn your house down? You can put your brain in park and let the film take you where it wants to go. And to be perfectly blunt, it is highly tempting to do so; the pleasures here are ample and generous. Just drive, she says, and that is mostly what happens.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is an orphan, who has been boosting cars ever since he lost his parents in a tragic car accident. Raised by his beloved foster dad, Baby has fallen in the wrong crowd, a den of thieves presided over by Doc (Kevin Spacey, thick of trunk and heavy of jowl) and his revolving crew of low-life criminals, a cavalcade of thug types including Bats (Jamie Foxx), a professional psycho with an astute understanding of human nature, Buddy (Jon Hamm), a trigger-happy thief with a shameful secret, and Darling (Eiza González), amoral and sartorially challenged.

Baby operates as the gang’s getaway driver par excellence. Seems the boy boosted a car with some rather valuable articles belonging to Doc, and he has been repaying his debt ever since. But one last heist, and he is hanging up his driving gloves and heading back to the straight life. The boy has incentive. Our sweet Baby has fallen under the spell of a waitress named Debora (Lily James).

But the path of true love never runs smooth. Here the roadblocks in the way of our two sweethearts are police roadblocks. Coerced back into one final job, Baby must use his skills to break free from the highway to hell and find another road less travelled.

To its credit, the film takes its sly time with the actual characters in the film, building a backstory for Baby and peopling the screen with sweetly burnished moments of pure surprise. (Keep your eyes peeled for an especially diverting bit from a tiny criminal in training.) Elgort, with his blank handsome face and minimal delivery, plays the eponymous Baby with Steve McQueen coolness.

The rest of the cast do their thing; Spacey is suitably lizard-like, and Hamm, psychotically handsome. The women, as a vestal virgin waitress and lap-dancing hurricane, take up the twin poles allotted to them, good girl and bad. It is Jamie Foxx who provides the humanity, giving his prototypical gangster a layer of complexity and thoughtfulness.

Road rage

This being a car chase film, the success of the thing is predicated on the rubber hitting the road, and the road hitting back. Wright pulls out all the stops, using the streets of Atlanta as a mobile arena in which cops and robbers do vehicular battle. There is a bevy of the usual stuff, police cars flipping in midair and bonking into things, and the bad guys racing into oncoming traffic, pausing only long enough to toss off a few quips and giggles.

Like all of Wright’s work, the best gags are often the throwaways, slipping in sideways with sotto voce silliness. To wit: a gang of would-be robbers buy Mike Myers masks, instead of Michael Myers, and rob an armoured truck looking like a band of toothy British stereotypes. A tattooed badass changes his neck ink to read “hat” instead of hate because, he says, “Everyone likes hats.” And so on. The film has a lightness and bounce about it that is refreshing. Even in the inevitable final showdown between Baby and the baddies, things move along at brisk clip, leavened by the glorious power of popular song.

And what songs they are. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Jon Spencer Blue Explosion, T. Rex, and Dave Brubeck, all channelled through Baby’s ears and his ubiquitous iPod. At its secret and tender heart, the film is meant to be a love story, buoyed along by cotton candy clouds of sound. But it is hard to get too carried away by Baby and Debora’s chaste passion. Neither character is particularly compelling on their own, and they are far outshone by the greasy bad guys. Even the bit characters (nice bank lady or lady that gets her car stolen) are more interesting than boring Debora.

At times it’s a little facile, too pleased with its own cleverness. And sometimes it takes an Englishman to bring down another countryman. In a sea of positively foamy and frothing reviews, the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane makes a dry point, stating that the film is little more than a mixed tape of Wright’s various obsessions, musical and otherwise. Certainly, Baby is a cipher, a vehicle to live out the teen fantasia of his maker. If you know and accept this, then it’s fine, but there is something not quite free enough to set the film loose and allow it to explode into true greatness.

Wright has always worn his influences on his sleeve (hence the Homage-O-Meter from Spaced that clocked every film reference in the series). In Baby Driver, the references — Driver, Vanishing Point, Bullitt, and The French Connection — form a 10-car pileup. By the film’s third act the momentum has started to stall out. Even as stuff explodes, bullets rain down, and cars careen onto sidewalks, off-ramps, every conceivable place that one might drive a motor vehicle, and many places where it is extremely ill advised, things starts to drag.

The fantasies that get stuck in the heated tar of teenage years never truly depart. As Wright has said in interviews, the idea for the film has been with him since he was a mere stripling of a lad. But one must be careful in making homage to the things you love, lest your inner fan boy get the better of you. As Lane points out in his review, Wright’s earlier films that celebrated American excess did so with a knowing wink. In Baby Driver, humour has taken a backseat to the action. As all the cool things are trotted out — cool music, cool sunglasses, cool cars, and cool film references — it starts to feel a little less fun.

It reminded me of a recent film essay on Breathless that explored the way in which Jean-Luc Godard’s film escaped from its influences, or at least turned them around on themselves. The same thought occurred to me while watching Bong Joon-ho’s new film Okja, but that is something for another day.

While the Breathless essay is a little up its own bum, the point being made about self-consciousness rings especially true in watching Wright lose himself in Baby Driver’s perfect storm of style.

Cool becomes a prison. By the end of the film you simply want to escape, to point the car towards the dark and endless highway and just go, clothes popping in the wind, water streaming from your eyeballs, hair scraped back from sheer velocity until you vanish into the distance and explode. Fin, as the French say.  [Tyee]

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