Sometimes it’s great to hear about where and how a filmmaker conceived of their movie. Getting from that initial burst of inspiration to the fully conceived piece of art is a creative journey worth taking. But in the desultory extras accompanying the DVD of Baby Driver, there isn’t much to explain the movie’s genesis besides the obvious. Writer/director Edgar Wright was obsessed with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” and thought it would be a great song for a car chase. So, like the eager fanboy that Wright is, he doesn’t wait any longer than the opening scene to drop that sequence.
The star, ace getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort), waits behind the wheel for his crew to finish robbing a bank. He cranks up “Bellbottoms” on the iPod and commences rocking out. He grooves, sings into a water bottle, and generally loses himself in music bliss, not missing a beat when the crew charges back into the car and they burn rubber. The meshing of the song’s raw squalling power and the chase’s visual velocity is cinematic TNT. Wright was right on that one. But while the whole sequence would have made an MTV Award-worthy video, it’s not much to build an entire movie on. The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” was cool, but they didn’t create a feature around it.
That’s not to say that Baby Driver doesn’t have its charms, even if they’re somewhat faded with all the influences they wear so heavily. Baby works for Doc (Kevin Spacey) an underworld heavyweight who is essentially President Francis J. Underwood with a whiteboard, trench coat, shotgun, and slightly higher morals. He puts together high-stakes heists with a rotating cast of Tarantino-lite gunsels like the overtly sociopathic Bats (Jamie Foxx, sporting a tattoo of a bat on his neck and a crazy-eyed stare) and the covertly sociopathic Buddy (Jon Hamm) but prefers his Baby at the wheel. Doc, whose stone-cold heart warms just the slightest when it comes to Baby, defends his out-there driver “a good kid and a devil behind the wheel.”
Those two characteristics are pretty much all that we get on Baby (“B-A-B-Y”? people ask incredulously). Wright has written him as a high-functioning autist who loves driving and listening to music, preferably doing those together. Imagine if Ryan Gosling’s character from Drive had a thing for air guitar, and you’re partway there. There’s an origin story for all of this, dealt out in flashbacks that are just a little too on the nose — traumatic memories from his childhood involving parents, music, and driving — to have much emotional impact. The movie keeps telling us that Baby has problems dealing with the world and can only cope by wearing sunglasses, not speaking, and driving with a stream of painstakingly curated music pumping through his earbuds.
But Elgort’s easygoing charisma and Baby’s surprising ease talking to just about anybody when required makes short work of the whole conceit; he’s less the Rainman of Getaway Drivers than he is a music-obsessed young adult who keeps to himself and wears sunglasses indoors. Hardly as off-putting as the other characters keep making it out to be. Wright also can’t stop hammering home the “good kid” aspect. He not only gives Baby an old deaf man (CJ Jones), his foster father, to care for, but a puppy dog romance with a curly-haired waitress named Debora (Lily James) who is so bright-eyed she appears to be auditioning for Glinda in a roadshow production of Wicked.
This is at heart a one-last-job story about the prototypical good kid trying to get out of the criminal life with his body, soul, and conscience (not to mention those of his foster father and new girlfriend) fully intact. But to do that, he has to pull a bigger-than-usual job with Doc and abscond with all his loot before the ever-paranoid crew is any the wiser. Yes, that’s about as hoary a cliché as there is. But when one-last-job movies are done right, watching the hero juggle the Rube Goldberg machinery of competing interests amidst the threaded arcs of guilt, redemption, loyalty, and utopian dreaming can be intoxicating in a pulpy kind of way.
But Wright, who has proven himself to be pretty resourceful when it comes to fizzy self-referential comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, doesn’t show his usual deft touch here. Like confidence men, heist movies hang on their cleverness and wit to distract the punters from realizing they’re being sold essentially the same bill of goods. Baby Driver lavishes more creative energies on DJ’ing a killer soundtrack than on choreographing unique twists on the movie’s various bank jobs staged in generic settings all over a highly generic-looking Atlanta. (The last of which becomes quite a problem: At the rate Doc is going, he would have knocked over basically every large money repository in Atlanta in about two months.)
As was ecstatically reported by the music press when they were fed the movie’s tracklist before release, the soundtrack is a rollicking double-album set of classic rock, R&B, and novelty hits like “Tequila”, “Brighton Rock”, and “Radar Love”, along with more outre cuts from The Damned and Danger Mouse. While using “Nowhere to Run” to score a chase scene isn’t the most inspired soundtrack choice, Wright at least tricks out his picture with some goofier moments, particularly the sequence where Baby goes on a coffee run while listening to “Harlem Shuffle”. In a long Steadicam crawl, Baby bounces and sways and shimmies down the street while lyrics from the song appear in graffiti form on walls and lampposts. It’s an attention-grabber, filled with as much easygoing glee as any MGM, and has almost nothing to do with the mostly forgettable movie that follows. A playlist, after all, does not a movie make.