Review: High-style ‘Baby Driver’ spins in circles
“Baby Driver” is convinced it is the coolest movie of the summer.
It’s a stylish crime romp with a fresh look, hip soundtrack and attitude to spare. It’s also a lesson in how it takes more than those elements to make a complete movie experience.
Writer-director Edgar Wright has made an effective ode to cinematic car chases, cool music, and the way that listening to cool music can make you feel like you’re in a cinematic car chase. It’s a movie geek, fast car, vroom-vroom fantasy come to life. But in the end, that’s all it is: a movie mixtape of screeching tires and hot sounds. And by the end, it skids off the road and crashes into a ditch.
Ansel Elgort plays Baby, a getaway driver who’s been slightly disconnected from reality since his parents were killed in a car crash when he was young. He lives his life through pop music and is never without a pair of earbuds in his ears, connected on the other end to one of several iPods he carries with him to fit his various moods (the iPods are obsolete wink-wink nostalgia plays; Baby would be better off investing in a premium Spotify membership).
In order to pull off his daring escapes, Baby needs to be playing just the right song to fit the situation, and Wright curates “Baby Driver” with the fine-tuned ear of a crate-digging vinyl enthusiast. When the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” kicks off the film’s first big action setpiece, the film is off to the races.
Baby is beholden to a crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), who uses him as the wheel man for various heist crews (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm and Jon Bernthal are among the hoods). Baby is trying to get out from under Doc’s grip, setting up a “one last job” scenario, but as these things tend to go, it’s not that easy.
Baby, who now lives with his foster father, Joseph (CJ Jones), falls for Debora (Lily James), a waitress at the diner where his mother used to work. Baby’s desire to save her and escape his life is complicated by his chosen vocation; it would have been a lot easier if he was just an Uber driver with exceedingly cool taste in music.
As “Baby Driver” plays out, it shifts tonally from a playful homage to high octane silent driver films (see “The Driver” or Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive”) to a violent crime drama that seems unsure of its footing. In films like “Hot Fuzz” and “Shaun of the Dead,” Wright revealed himself to be a keen genre satirist, and in “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World,” he steadily piled on 8-bit absurdities until he arrived at the over-the-top conclusion he earned. (It was his best film.) “Baby Driver” seems confused as to where its headed, and its lack of follow-through hurts the overall picture.
It also piles on quirks just to pile on quirks; Baby tapes his conversations and remixes them into hip-hop songs, for no reason other than that seems like a cool thing to toss into a movie. (It also ignores the possible implications of recording the details of criminal activities.)
Elgort has never been the most expressive actor, and while Wright tailors Baby to fit him, Elgort has an inherent blankness that doesn’t read well for the character. He looks the role — his hair is perfectly disheveled, he wears excellent jackets and he knows how to rock a pair of sunglasses and white earbuds — but when Elgort is called on to emote or show heart, “Baby Driver” suffers.
There’s plenty to admire about “Baby Driver”: it is very savvy about pop music and pop culture, and it has a number of thrilling car chase sequences. But those are side items, not main courses, and you can’t put dessert before the meal. It winds up driving in circles.
Rated R: for violence and language throughout
Running time: 113 minutes