' Cinema Romantico: Baby Driver

Monday, July 17, 2017

Baby Driver

It was Jesse Wallace who once expressed his desire to write a novel taking place in the space of a pop song. And while “Baby Driver” may not fit into the space of a single pop song, writer/director Edgar Wright manages to squeeze it into the space of a playlist, an iPod playlist, that is, belonging to the titular character, the uniquely monikered Baby (Ansel Elgort), a youthful robbery getaway driver. Tinnitus in his ear means he listens to music almost constantly as a countermeasure to the non-stop hum. In the planning of a bank heist, the intimidating Bats (Jamie Foxx) demands to know if this apple faced wheelman, given his omnipresent earbuds, even heard the plan. Baby did and recites the scheme word for word, a comical moment but also a telling one – pop music is Baby’s pulse, like when he goes for coffee and the beat in his head (“Harlem Shuffle” by Bob & Earl) becomes indistinguishable from the world around him. And when music is fundamental to “Baby Driver” rather than ancillary is when the movie is best too.


The opening scene, in which Baby transports a triad of bank robbers to safety, sets the tone, a crazy car chase that is freshened up by how Wright and his editors, Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, cut to the rhythm of “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, where each swerve and skid feels in service to the song rather than the other way around, like the car chase itself is just providing harmony. In a later gun battle, the pop of each firearm syncopates with the song on the soundtrack. It is not only something akin to the bullet ballet of John Woo’s Hong Kong gun fu opuses taking place in the same universe as “La La Land”, but a rare moment, I suspect, when NRA members and liberal art lovers can come together.

Wright has made a career of not so much parodying genres he likes as inhabiting them to their core and then giving them, successfully or not, their own stylish spin. So in “Baby Driver” he hitches his wagon to the heist movie, with Baby indebted to a vaguely defined crime kingpin called Doc (Kevin Spacey) who pairs his driver with a revolving motley crew that sometimes includes Bats, but sometimes also includes Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González). Baby, of course, goes in for one last job, which turns out not to be a last job, which fuels his desire for escape with Debora (Lilly James), the idealized diner waitress with no backstory because she is a mere apparition, existing to give the principal male something to fight for.

Their relationship is intended as pivotal, and while it is crisply played by both James and Engort, the kinetic editing here does a disservice, chopping up potential character building moments into mere bursts of more moviemaking style. What’s worse, the situation into which Wright places them and the dialogue he gives them to recite never really gets at the idea of their age. They come across less like two kids in strangely adult situations desperate to recapture their lost youth than the two kids in “Airplane!” masquerading as adults, attempting to Escape Their Circumstances, just as the bank robbing storyline turns on a Big Job That Goes Wrong and The Bad Guy Who Cannot Be Killed. There is rarely any kind of enthusiastic amplification of these genre machinations for which Wright typically strives, like the moment in “Shaun of the Dead” when Lucy Davis gives the informative speech on How To Walk Like A Zombie, never mind the climactic blowup of “Hot Fuzz.”


The one performer here who truly transcends the material is Jamie Foxx. A conventional Loose Cannon, Foxx nevertheless injects gusts of life into the part, displaying an aptitude for sizing people up and exuding such convincing menace that Baby still comes across in genuine danger even in scenes where, per movie custom, we are conditioned to know he is not. In other words, Foxx inhabits the archetype and then deepens it, which is what “Baby Driver” itself only manages to do when music is at the forefront of the film, and the further the film goes, the less that applies. This is crystallized in the mixtapes Baby makes by recording everyday sounds and words on a vintage cassette recorder and then blending them into quotidian hip hop songs. It’s tempting to read this as a metaphor for “Baby Driver” as a remix of heist movies, but those mix tapes, so intriguing on their own, ultimately exist only as a means for blackmail later by Doc, emblemizing the way in which the longer the movie goes, the more Wright turns the story up in the mix and takes the music back. By the time it ended, I was ready to skip to the next track.

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