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‘Baby Driver’ Is Far From the Same Old Song

It’s a bit corny, a tad excessive, and a little familiar. But in director Edgar Wright’s hands, this is a heist caper unlike any you’ve ever seen.

(TriStar Pictures)
(TriStar Pictures)

There’s hardly any singing in Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s original new heist comedy, but it’s nevertheless being talked about, by critics, as if it were a musical. Collider has even called it a "symphony of cinema." OK, that works. It’s a movie about a getaway driver whose code name is Baby, which is easy enough to remember because he looks like one. (The title was copped from Simon & Garfunkel.) Sweet as a bowl of cereal milk, Baby, who’s played with confident ease by Ansel Elgort, has got an enduring case of tinnitus, a subtle ringing in the ears that he’s had since being in a car wreck as a kid. Baby’s got backstory: His parents died in that wreck. All he’s got now, as a 20-something with a gift for hauling tail, is a loving foster father, who’s deaf, and his job as a getaway driver, which he’s sticking out only due to his backlog of debts. Oh, and he’s got music, of course: Queen, Barry White, Martha & the Vendellas, and on and on. Righteous sounds that drown out the bad vibes — music that seems to give Baby’s life order and meaning.

It’s a dependency, in other words. A crutch. And Wright’s movie, which comes out this week, makes the most of it. There’s nary a moment in Baby Driver that we don’t hear Baby’s jams buzzing into his ears. And that music is sympatico with seemingly every nook of the movie’s style: the rhythm of the editing, the mood, the way characters talk and move. So sure, let’s call it a musical. And in that case, let’s call its opening minutes — a slyly choreographed bank heist, with identically clad robbers strolling in step and a car chase that plays out like an acrobatic dance number through the streets of Atlanta — the overture. Better yet, the opening statement. Musicals and heist movies are genres that live or die by their set pieces, and Wright, who’s best known for rambunctious comedies like Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, is nothing if not a showman. His style is wild, propulsive, insistently clever. Just look at the chaotic groove of that opening chase scene, set to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s "Bellbottoms." Key lyric: "I wanna dance." The scene is full of the stuttering cuts and camera swerves and the dancelike pleasures of editing and movement by now familiar to those attuned to Wright’s style. He’s carved out a reputation for himself as one of the few mainstream comedy directors working today whose own style is actively in on every joke — the rare contemporary comedy director who’s as funny, and smart, as his actors.

That skill is the real joy of Baby Driver, which, musical gimmick aside, is largely familiar — not that it matters. The movie glides by on the assured strength of Wright’s style and brilliance of his cast, which includes the guilelessly charming Lily James (2015’s Cinderella), the acerbically witty Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey, and Jon Hamm, whose ironically confident sad-boy act has gotten him further, post–Mad Men, than I expected. (He’s very good here.) The premise is straightforward. As a reckless kid, Baby accidentally stole from one of the baddest guys in town, Doc (Spacey), who was so impressed with the boy’s skill behind the wheel that, rather than kill him, has allowed Baby to dig his way out of debt one heist at a time. When the movie starts, Baby’s got "one last job" to go, which is heist-movie-speak for, "You’re fucked." Multiple wrenches are thrown in his path. He meets a girl he likes, Debora (James), and decides he wants to run away with her. The incessant oddness of his personality incites the suspicion of a crook named Bats (Foxx), who’s technically his partner, but who’s going to fuck him over in some way — you can feel it. And Doc — who trusts no one — decides he works too well with Baby to turn him loose after his last job. "So what’s it going to be?" he says, offering Baby an ultimatum. "Behind a wheel, or in a wheelchair?" Baby takes the wheel.

The script, written by Wright, is endearingly excessive. I’m on the verge of saying we should cancel the word "baby" forever; please call your kids something else. On the other hand, if you’re going to do it, do it. There’s a line about "taking candy from a baby"; there’s another about "facing the music." Corny, but Wright earns it through a style that mish-mashes the hardness of the criminal world with the sleek softness of modern love. Baby is a millennial nostalgic; instead of vinyl, he collects old iPods. His jacket pockets are full them, and flip phones to later burn, and an apparently unending stash of cheap shades. He’s deliberately analog, in a way, which strikes a funny contrast with the utter danger of his crimes and his consummate skill at performing them. Even as the movie openly invokes old crime tropes (you’ll be reminded of Bonnie and Clyde), it’s distinctly, knowingly millennial — and gleeful about that fact. Wright has created a timeless, boundaryless, but specifically 21st-century world. It’s a world in which the outlaw hero is defined by the pitch-perfect breadth of his playlists, and in which working for a big, bad crime boss, who makes Baby go on coffee runs after every mission, somehow feels like an unpaid internship.

Baby’s of the age that when he thinks back to his earliest Christmas, it’s a memory of getting an iPod — meaning: You’re old, and he’s not. It’s hard to think of a movie in recent memory that’s made as much out of something so simple as two characters sharing earbuds and listening to a song together. Wright so enfolds us in Baby’s world, making him dance through the streets as he walks for that coffee like a Gene Kelly hero who can’t control himself, that the music itself is always a point of intimacy. (There’s also the fact that Baby’s mom, played briefly here by Sky Ferreira, was a singer.) Even as the characters themselves come off as a little vague — and even as you start to suspect that Baby doesn’t have a specific taste, really, just a knack for picking consensus favorite B-sides — the movie hums along with a pure sense of pleasure at its own existence. The gimmick doesn’t always work: Wright’s sense of how the music interacts with Baby’s world is sometimes garishly literal, as during a gunfight, set to a lively remix of "Tequila," in which the perfectly timed gunshots get played up like a rhythm section. Violence becomes the music.

The movie’s style is so carefully crafted, its playlist so deliberately curated, that how any of this relates to or clarifies Baby’s actual personality or taste is almost beside the point. Except: Isn’t it the point? Only sort of. There’s a great but underdeveloped moment, late in the movie, when Baby is being chased by the police and hijacks a car, but he can’t get going until he puts on a song. The movie is chock full of Baby’s odd compulsions, but this is the first time it reveals itself to be a depressing hang-up, a behavioral tick almost too interesting to be contained, or explained, by a sad backstory. Wright sticks, for the most part, to the psychological stakes familiar to the genre. But the character he’s written — who, as performed by Elgort, is all long limbs, casual flair, and upbeat sadness — is almost more interesting than the movie gives him a chance to be.

I guess that’s a flaw, but it takes a while to feel it. The movie is a gust of fresh air: a feature-length quotation mark of a movie that somehow doesn’t feel too hung up on its references. Wright’s originality as an artist is to refurbish old tricks, old tropes, in his own wackadoo image. And the joy of Baby Driver is that, though you’ve seen versions of this story before, many times over, you’ve never seen it done quite like this.