“That’s how you do it, Baby.”
Ask me to describe Baby Driver in one line and you’ll get a different response every time. “Take True Romance’s Bonnie and Clyde love affair and splash in some of François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player.” “Imagine a Gene Kelly musical told as a Fast and Furious film, but with brains and with heart.” “It’s as if you made Grease into a Grand Theft Auto game.” All of these are accurate while still underselling what makes master director and conductor of chaos Edgar Wright’s latest into such an encyclopedic symphony of art. I went into this picture giddy, smiling with excitement from the trailers, and left knowing that what I witnessed was the exact film Wright had dreamt up in his head. If that’s not visionary, I don’t know what is. Go to the theater for the big sound and the screen, relax in your seat, and ride-along with the adrenaline shot that is Baby Driver. Believe the hype. It’s earned.
As per the title, there’s a man who goes by the moniker Baby (Ansel Elgort). Some might say he suffers from tinnitus (what’s called a “hum in the drum”), but that would be incorrect, because Baby uses music to thrive and drown out the ringing noise in his ears and the world outside. For all intents and purposes, Baby shouldn’t be a legendary getaway driver for thieving king-pin Doc (Kevin Spacey), to whom he must repay a debt to leave a life of crime. He’s young, drapes his eyes in shades, plugs his ears with headphones. How do you react to outside stimuli in the midst of a heist when your vision is darkened and your hearing distorted? The answer comes in the shape of two back-to-back iconic sequences; the first is a robbery shown like the opening from The Dark Knight told with a sweet tooth, and the second is Baby strolling through the streets of Atlanta like Gene Kelly roller skating around New York in It’s Always Fair Weather. Baby lives in a bubble of perfectly executed musical cues that coincide with the world around him. At least until that safe space is popped.
Griff (Jon Bernthal), an early member of the crew, asserts that he’s dead if we don’t hear from him again. He also tells Baby that one day he’ll have to get blood on his hands. His abrupt exit assures both to be true. From there we’re introduced to Baby’s dwindling foster parent, the past deaths of an asshole Dad and his angelic Mom, intimate beats where he records real life and DJ’s them into songs to experience living in his own way, and a meet-cute with a diner waitress named Debora (Lily James). From the first second she waltzes into the frame singing “B-A-B-Y” by Carla Thomas, we can be sure of a few things, not the least of which is that Baby sees an angel in the flesh. To her, the mystery man charms while a cat has his tongue. Debora infuses love and reinstills the innocent nature of Baby, like a sweet dessert mirage in a desert of inhumanity. Neither is perfect, but just maybe they’re perfect for each other. Somehow they’re both playfully whimsy and stoically serious.
Baby wants to leave this life in the rear-view, exploring the paved interstates with his new gal and never looking back, looking towards the future with the kind of blinded abandon that comes with clouded infatuation. Most Romeo and Juliet riffs err in this thinking whereas Baby Driver is so loving, so kind, and so plagued by the destructive tendencies of man without totally succumbing to them. The same can’t be said for Baby’s last crew. Bats (Jamie Foxx) says he does drugs to fuel his robbing habit. For good contrast, Bats pegs Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González) – he with a neck tattoo of “Hers” and she with a “His” – as thieves fueling drug habits. Addiction is their common theme. Not for Baby, though. He’s an anachronistic soul, carrying different iPods loaded with music for the right moments, his dingy apartment full of records, a stick-shift driver in a sea of manuals. Wright has intentionally bred this lead character as a hybrid of the then and the now to serve as open vessel of understanding for audiences of all ages. Baby is hard to really know, yet through Elgort’s stunning performance, we sympathize. That’s not easy to do.
With his natural athleticism and knack for musical performance, Ansel Elgort’s baby face perfectly encapsulates the spirit of his character. He twirls in fits of love, runs while chased with a parkour elusiveness, and convincingly shifts from 0-60 with no reprehension. Not a single casting call is ill-fitted, each actor playing their part and playing it well, always aligning with the storyboard inside Mr. Wright’s brain. How could you go wrong with such talent matched with one of our most meticulous modern directors? Well, for starters, the ending left me a bit cold, resorting to literal bang-bang resolutions that substitute wry feelings in for the early wit. That’s not to say it doesn’t work at all, but only to suggest that Wright’s dream becomes a quick-stop hallucination. As viewers, we get every conclusion we could ask for. Would Baby Driver be richer had it spent less time wrapping everything up with a bow? I tend to think so but will never know for sure.
With this flourishing, dazzling piece of pop punk pastiche, Edgar Wright proves himself to be a proprietor, a curator, and an endlessly inventive creator of timelessly updated takes on old art. He drops at atom bomb of cultural influences into his moving portrait of a film, fusing millennials and baby boomers into a roughly 2 hour cassette tape driven at top speed, like a shock-jock who actually knows music and pushes play on a soundtrack that defines the picture itself. I’ve seen many movies that unfold, at least tangentially, the same way that Baby Driver unfolds. But I have never watched a movie that coalesced the various spectrums of sight and sound into one all-seeing eye, playing along at the beat of its own drum, exuding Academy Award level editing and sound mixing chops from a once in a generation and brain surgeon of a filmmaker. Baby Driver has minor issues, but it’s also such a concussive blast that I’m pretty sure I only remember the moments it persistently inspires along its unforgettably madcap highway. Buckle up.
“You’re the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time.”
Rating: 4 out of 5