Jun 29, 2017

Review: "Baby Driver" is a Finely Tuned Summer Ride

Ansel Elgort
Everybody loves a good car chase. If you don't believe me, just notice that in the first six months of 2017, The Fate of the Furious is the second highest grossing movie of the year with over a billion worldwide. There's an excitement to getting behind the wheel and spinning a vehicle recklessly with style, doing your best to escape from potential doom. The rich history of car chase movies are present in director Edgar Wright's latest Baby Driver, which sets out to deconstruct the mythos behind the wheel while innovating it with a literal feature length soundtrack that is as intricate and detailed as any scene in the movie. It's a thrill ride, and one that features the familiar charisma that Wright brings to his work. In the process, he doesn't just pay homage to one of cinema's most ridiculous genres, but he possibly matches and exceeds their enjoyment value. 
Much like Reservoir Dogs, Baby Driver is given an interesting angle about bank heists that doesn't actually involve bank heists. The opening scene features Baby (Ansel Elgort) driving a trio to rob a bank. As they leave his perimeter, a more curious filmmaker would follow them in. Wright chooses to stay behind and watch Baby, who doesn't do more than sit in the car. With his iPod turned on (one of many, depending on his "moods"), he scrolls to find the song that will get him in the mood: The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms." With its thunderous cry, he waits in the car while lip syncing the screams and bangs playing in his ears. It's the perfect preparation for a car chase that will take place upon the trio returning to the car.
Baby is a whiz. What follows is likely the reason that Wright has been so drawn to making this movie for YEARS now. It isn't about holding up a joint, it's about finding new angles to shoot a car chase. It's from the sky, the backseat, everywhere that is humanly possible. Along with being energetic, the one thing that Wright's film deserves praise for is that, much like Mad Max: Fury Road, the car chases are all done in practical effects. The dangerous points are lifted to exhilarating heights because there is an actual car in jeopardy at any point. The fact that it is choreographed so meticulously is another achievement, especially as this is also Wright's most absurd film with very little emotionally grounded in reality. 
These are characters that exist within a world that understands film and music. They have consumed it to the point that they know by sound what Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers' "Egyptian Reggae" sound like. Much like their nicknames, they talk in a code of artifice that hides likely deeper emotional scars. For Baby, he drowns out his problems by playing music, which makes even a simple trip to the coffee shop into a compelling and comical routine set to music. The world is O.C.D. about sound, and every moment feels predicated on what song is playing largely from Baby's iPod of choice, but could also come from car radios or diner jukeboxes. Music is so prevalent that one could be forgiven for noticing how little character work exists in each of the characters' memorable appearances. 
Even Baby's personal arc is met with artifice. He remixes conversations with his boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) using tapes and sound recording equipment. He doesn't talk much, believing that he is merely a humble getaway driver with a knack for killer car moves. He is quintessentially Fred Astaire if his feet moved pedals instead of the earth he walked on. Even his love interest Debora (Lily James), the only significant character who openly uses her name, is introduced at her waitress diner job with someone else's name badge. Everything is a bit deceptive, even at their most caring moments. Baby and Debora don't bond over personal life stories, but over how many songs have Baby or Debora in the name (though she's more obsessed with how many have her sister Mary's name in them, given the unique spelling of Debora).
Anyone who has seen car chase and bank heist movies will know the third act well enough. There's great car chases. Elgort even gets an extended foot chase scene excellently filmed to Focus' "Hocus Pocus." However, Wright's obsession with the big details makes it difficult to land the smaller ones that usually put him a step above everyone else. Nobody in Baby's life feels real. There's too much of an obsession on film and music that is distracting from character development. It may work for nerds who obsess over over the top action (again, mostly done here with practical effects), but it doesn't have much of a heart under the coolness. Baby and Deborah's relationship exists more as a plot convenience than anything more deeply explored. None of Baby or Doc's coworkers have much to offer that isn't cartoonish or lacking more than a few interesting tricks.
It's part of the charm and detriment of Baby Driver as a whole. Despite feeling at times like a carbon copy of what's seen before, Wright is too passionate to let the obviousness literally slow him down. He knows which references to crib from, and he makes a powerful action film that is leagues above most contemporary American names in large part because, unlike some of the characters, they feel grounded in reality. There's even something to be said for a soundtrack that could be studied unto itself as an innovative musical format. Various melodies return throughout the film, emphasizing a deeper significance of music to the characters. There's plenty for nerds to get out of the soundtrack as well, as a large fraction of the music are either songs that would be sampled in later pop hits, or covers of songs known well. There's even something to book-ending the entire thing with the "Bellbottoms" track, later remixed over the credits in a Run the Jewels song called "Chase Me," which is more in line with the radical braggadocio of the story.
For all of the issues of the film being impersonal, it still is a ton of fun. It's a unique take on a genre that could get by on simply filming a car in front of green screens. Instead of going easy, Wright goes for authentic, and manages to create a story that may be too ambitious, but succeeds more than fails. Fans of his work will be thankful to know that his passion is still there, and comes back frequently. In some ways, this is his most assured work as a director, including a fantastic long take opening credits scene. However, there's plenty here that was more intellectually explored in Hot Fuzz. It could just be that it had an ensemble with more to do. However, it could just be that - like The Fate of the Furious earlier this year - the point of Baby Driver is to be a ridiculous send-up of the genre; and in order to do so, you have to sacrifice some things to do it right. 

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