Baby Driver (2017)
Dir. Edgar Wright; Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey
[1.5 out of 4 stars]
With his “Cornetto Trilogy,” consisting of Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), and The World’s End (2013), Edgar Wright developed a way of photographing humour that was ferociously original. All the while, the likes of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost populated meticulously written screenplays, bringing life to characters dealing with everything from post-zombie-apocalypse friendship, to the discovery that people do in fact have to grow up. After a four-year absence, Wright returns this summer with Baby Driver (2017), a slick heist-comedy, which he wrote and directed. The film expands on his visual brilliance, but otherwise shows a stunning lack of originality.
The film tells the story of a Baby (Ansel Elgort), a reluctant getaway driver for Doc’s (Kevin Spacey) various four-person heist teams. Baby continues to drive for him to pay back a transgression from years earlier when he stole one of Doc’s cars for a joy ride. The arrangement came about,because Baby’s parents died in a car crash, which supplies two thrusts for the film: one, allowing Baby to be the troubled orphan archetype; two, providing a backstory for his tinnitus, a condition which compels him to keep his headphones planted firmly in his ears at all times to drown out the ringing it creates. The silent brooding type, Baby frequents a diner his mother used to work at and so meets waitress Debora (Lily James) and the two immediately fall for one another over their mutual love of music.
Baby’s tinnitus is a brilliant conceit which allows Wright to explore the grafting of action and music. The soundtrack features upwards of 20 seemingly carefully chosen songs across genres, and the film is undoubtedly the most accomplished I have seen in melding visuals with sound. In what is arguably the most impressive sequence of the film, Baby walks along the street to get coffee for the team after their first heist. He plugs into his headphones and listens to “Harlem Shuffle” by Bob & Earl. It is an expert long take that shows Baby matching his movements to what he’s listening to, and Wright sprinkles posters, graffiti, and signs with snippets of the lyrics, little Easter eggs that show we are as much in Baby’s version of the world as in Wright’s. The experimentation does not end here, though. In one later scene, Baby and company get in a bloody shootout, and Wright matches gunfire with beats in the song. Multiple car chases, of which there are many, time tire squeals and gear changes with notes and beats as well. The whole film is carefully composed in how it brings sound and action together.
However, as is often the case, this great strength also seems to be the film’s undoing. Wright’s infatuation with the pairing means that Baby’s story at its best moments seems like little more than a thin excuse to link together action sequences. More specifically, with each chase, shootout, or fight tied so tightly to a song, the movie seems to become a string of mini music videos that happen to feature the same actors. Clocking in at just under two hours, it is by no means a long movie, but it feels like it, a fact directly relatable to its structure. Bombast is tiring, and no number of witty one-liners and energetic songs can save the fact that there is little else memorable to this film besides the action. We are given too little time to connect with the characters outside of the frenetic frames of these action passages. Wright suffers from no lack of enthusiasm, but it seems to come at the expense of emotion because there is never enough time to think about a character before they are once again firing a gun in time with a bass line.
There are quite a few moments when Wright tries to flesh his characters out. Slowly expanding flashbacks to his parents’ death are meant to provide Baby with a sympathetic backstory, and his deaf and wheelchair bound adoptive father Joseph (CJ Jones) is no doubt intended to be the heart of Baby’s present, that is until Debora comes into play. But, because Wright dwells so little on giving this emotion room to breathe between carjackings and kill shots, it feels exceptionally disingenuous. There are extensive sections where Joseph is seemingly forgotten. We can only imagine how much help this man must need with both of his disabilities, and his fragility and the connection he has with Baby become nothing more than plot points. When he is inevitably roughed up, and Baby returns to discover this, the sympathy the audience should feel never materializes. Elgort plays the scene as Baby being sad and angry for what has happened to Joseph, seeing it as the moment when he must get Joseph out of harm’s way. Yet, for most of the movie, Baby has been off with Debora, seemingly giving no mind to Joseph, which relegates this father figure to a role that seems deeply ineffectual. His physical fragility could very well be matched to Baby’s mental fragility, but instead, Joseph’s is only played as a plot point and so loses any emotional capital it could have. Baby was selfish and left those he loves exposed. There is no sympathy there, as hard as Wright may try to create it.
Such a scene reflects another larger problem of the film. Wright has assembled an immensely talented group of performers, but they are wasted on a screenplay that gives them little to do. Jamie Foxx is scene stealing as an unstable squad member, but he serves no purpose other than to motivate action. His temper is the inciting force behind more than one of the aforementioned sequences. James and Elgort have more than enough chemistry to make their coupling feasible, but they are given nothing original to work with. Instead, Wright chooses cheap Bonnie and Clyde tropes. Most upsetting to me was the waste of Kevin Spacey, once again relegated to the role of unimaginative villain. He is exceptional at playing evil, but Doc is no Frank Underwood or John Doe and so it is only tiresome. It is the pinnacle of unoriginality in a screenplay fraught with it, something that undermines any visual wizardry on display.
Whatever it is he may have set out to make, Wright ended up making a glorified music video — admittedly one with exceptional production and visual directorial originality, but with a cast of characters so forgettable and a storyline so flimsy that it cannot overcome this. If Wright had redirected some of his energy from shot composition and choreography towards his storytelling, Baby Driver could have a been triumph of genre-bending action and heart right alongside Hot Fuzz or a refreshing entry in a well-trod genre like The World’s End. But he didn’t. It is only an enormous waste of potential.