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‘Baby Driver’ (review)

Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nira Park
Written and Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James,
Jon Bernthal, Eiza González, Jon Hamm,
Jamie Foxx, Sky Ferreira, Flea

 

Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver pulled into SXSW this past weekend after a longer-than-wanted absence from the director’s feature work. Understandably, the fanatic audience, made up of a huge percentage of Hollywood heavy hitters, was eager to catch the action-comedy in advance of its August 2017 release.

The director’s nerdcore movie brand has been a give to modern cult cinema, combining fast-paced genre send-ups with manic pop culture injected dialogue.

Spawned from the pure genius of Spaced, his Cornetto trilogy, is arguably the best comic book adaptation not based on a comic book. His actual comic book adaptation, Scott Pilgrim, is worshiped by fans for its magical realism.

Going into Baby Driver with high-gear expectations, especially in light of a Wright-helmed Ant Man we never got to see, is an inevitable crutch I’m imagining all the director’s fans will face. But midway through the film’s sharp turns and slick shifts, I was starting to wonder who this big budget studio release is really intended for. It’s, yet again, another basic boy-meets-girl story with an “it’s complicated” crime-story status. It’s born out of countless films that inspired Wright to make it, and even more mix tapes he listened to while writing it.

I’d like to restrain from shunning the film as derivative, since that’s kind of the point. Much of the humor is self aware, and the director often calls himself out on it. One of the film’s best jokes revolves around the titular character’s damaged emotional thought process, celebrating the emotional importance of Monsters, Inc.

Baby, played with a Steve McQueen coolness by Ansel Elgort, is a post-millennial Chauncey Gardiner with faster reflexes. Being There is one of the film’s under-the-surface inspirations. Instead think of it as Fast and Furious’s Infinite Playlist.

Beyond the backstory of young love, there’s the very violent, and very serious criminal component Wright’s injected. It’s Baby’s job to drive a crew of competing usual suspects through an increasingly dangerous series of heists, all subject to increasingly violent outcomes and increasingly ridiculous neck tattoos. Never is anything anchored in the real-world, and nor should it be. Kevin Spacey plays a daddy-o crime boss as if the crime boss is imitating Kevin Spacey playing a crime boss. Jamie Foxx gets to get hard, Jon Hamm gets to get hammy as a die-hard psychopath, Flea is miscast as one of the earlier crew apparently because he’s, well, Flea, and wouldn’t that be cool to have him as one of the criminals? I got the biggest kick out of Wright’s cameo contribution of Paul Williams as a heavy ammunition dealer with a flair for comparing them to cuts of beef.

Music is the real breakout star of Baby Driver, and Wright has himself described it as a crime-movie driven by music. Baby can’t function without his ear-buds connected to one of his many iPods, curated carefully by mood and powering his hired getaways from behind the wheel. From start to finish, every beat of the eclectic wall-to-wall soundtrack informs the actions of characters. Sequences that shine include carefully choreographed continuous takes (Bill Pope is cinematographer), which occasionally check in with Baby singing along to the complimentary lyrics. Sometimes the device merges the music to the action, with bullets and explosions punctuating the soundtrack’s percussion. Brighton Rock by Queen, Deborah by Beck (and T-Rex), and Easy by the Commodores are just a few of the writer/director’s selections, all turned up to eleven.

Music is the passion of this project, and its main character uses it to drown out the emotional scars of his past, literally (Baby has a ringing ear resulting from a childhood accident). We’re to believe the very things we’re told not to do as kids, sitting too close to the television and listening too loud with headphones, are not only ways of life here, but ways to cope. Why pay attention to others when you can read lips better than you can hear? If only it were that simple.

Perhaps Edgar Wright made this movie strictly for himself, and his fans.  I applaud that, but I fear it’s only to be celebrated by those too young to recognize its inspirations. I honestly lost count over all the things it reminded me of — Badlands, True Romance, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Getaway, A Life Less Ordinary.  Perhaps he made it for a generation raised on songs as first heard in the Grand Theft Auto video-game saga, or latest Superbowl ad, or Spotify celebrity playlist.

More exhausting than overly entertaining, the movie would have been more successful as a short film or series of music videos. Perhaps that’s the way to digest it, as its high-fidelity action doesn’t hold together as a long-playing release. By the end, ironically, it was my ears that were ringing.

 

Baby Driver opens on August 11, 2017

 

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