There are moments when you want to punch Baby Driver in its self-indulgent face, but it eventually wears you down with its unrelenting audacity and excess. Writer-director Edgar Wright delivers a hardboiled crime thriller that still has time for comedy and romance. Not all of it works, as Baby Driver sometimes feels like a deranged mashup between Drive, Heat, and La La Land, but there’s nothing else out there quite like this bizarre thrill ride.
There is a rhythm to everyday life, even if that rhythm is often kept by a discordant jazz trio. For the tragically nicknamed Baby (Ansel Elgort finally making the jump to big-boy cinema), rhythm dictates every aspect of his life. Whether he’s fetching coffee from the local diner or driving the getaway car for his bank robbing cronies, Baby uses an eclectic musical playlist to reach an uneasy compromise between the outside world and his hyperactive mind.
You see, Baby may be a getaway driver for hardened criminals, but he’s also, fundamentally, a good kid. “A good kid, but a devil behind the wheel,” as Baby’s relentless boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), sums it up. This contradiction constitutes the film’s fundamental weakness; a good person couldn’t (and wouldn’t) tolerate the inhumanity and carnage that director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, 2007, The World’s End, 2013) heaps upon his lanky hero.
When Baby sees a pool of blood trickling from the beneath the lifeless body of an armored truck guard, he seems oddly unfazed. He may think that babysitting his elderly foster father (CJ Jones) makes him more honorable, but he’s no better than the criminals riding shotgun in his $100k sports car. This lack of moral comeuppance makes it very hard to generate empathy for Baby, regardless of how good the screenwriter tells us he is.
Of course, Baby Driver isn’t a film about real people. It’s a hyper-stylized landscape of vicious gangsters, pulp-noir crime plots, and dazzling car chases. People talk in a wholly unnatural way, peppered by staccato clichés and impenetrable jargon. When Baby falls hard for Debora (Lily James), a cute waitress who occasionally shares his earbuds over a Styrofoam cup of coffee, Baby’s chilling adversary, Bats (Jamie Foxx), warns him that, “The moment you catch feelings is the moment you catch a bullet.” It’s ridiculously corny, but it works in this cartoon world of rascals and reverb.
The film’s bravura opening sequence quickly alerts you to Wright’s intentions. Baby effortlessly maneuvers a battlefield of Atlanta urban sprawl and strategically placed police gauntlets as “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion thunders beneath the action. It’s an exhilarating rush of cinematic cotton candy that perfectly showcases Baby’s skillset.
It also highlights the inextricable link between sound and image. The need for constant musical accompaniment is explained in a succinct 30-second flashback, in which a fateful car crash gives the young Baby a permanent case of tinnitus. To mask the interminable ringing, Baby plays music every waking moment. This pervasive soundtrack (which includes the titular Simon & Garfunkel track, “Baby Driver”) might actually induce tinnitus in those viewers with fussy musical tastes, but it’s still a novel device to create what is, ostensibly, a glorified musical.
Jon Hamm, Lily James, and Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver (2017)
Wright puts a refreshing spin on the ‘one last job’ subgenre of crime thrillers by simply dismissing the notion that our past sins have any respect for our future plans. Baby’s last job proves to be relatively easy, but the delightfully wicked Doc squashes Baby’s dream of “heading West on 20 with a car we can’t afford and a plan we don’t have” like the delusional fantasy that it is. Doc knows that Baby is a punk, even if Baby is slow to figure it out.
Given the lack of genuine human emotion and relatability, it’s not surprising, then, that Baby Driver struggles when Baby takes his foot off the gas pedal. The relationship between Baby and Debora, which includes the indie film staple of a flirtatious evening spent at a grungy laundromat, feels particularly tacked on. It’s a transparent device to fuel Baby’s impulsive decisions and start the film toward its bumpy resolution. Mercifully, Wright understands this shortcoming, so he keeps the uninspired sentimentality to a minimum.
Mostly, he just sticks to lots of glamorized, slick violence. It makes for a wonderfully excessive and entertaining crime thriller, but it’s also an ironic commentary on the genre itself. Like any reckless joyride, the electrifying speed and breakneck escapes eventually become tedious. Wright is forced to keep topping himself with audacious visuals and outlandish plot twists. People make illogical decisions and seemingly unimportant supporting characters, such as Jon Hamm’s greasily charming Buddy, become characters of unlikely importance. In other words, everything about Baby Driver falls apart the minute you start thinking about it.
Luckily, Edgar Wright and his stellar cast give you every excuse to put your brain on cruise control. Much like Shane Black, Wright uses plot as a crude vehicle to push action, humor, and in the case of Baby Driver, music. Each gunshot, car horn, and skidding tire is choreographed to the rhythm of a throbbing soundtrack that spans multiple musical genres. Baby Driver is an immersive thriller that seduces you to embrace its ridiculously fun excesses.