Baby Driver (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Adam Nayman

General Glen McMahon's entourage in  War Machine.

General Glen McMahon's entourage in War Machine.

Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, and Nina Park; directed and written by Edgar Wright; cinematography by Bill Pope; edited by Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss; music by Steven Price; starring Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eliza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal, and Kevin Spacey. Color. 113 min. A Sony Pictures release.

Of all the skilled, distinctive British filmmakers who have emerged at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Edgar Wright is the one most in love with the idea of an assertive, whirling directorial style. His is a cinema of look-ma-no-tripod-camera-calisthenics; his only real U.K. rival in this regard is his surname sake Joe, who turns his pirouettes rather more pretentiously. Elsewhere, Wright’s most significant generational peers have either opted for minimalist chill (Joanna Hogg, Clio Barnard, Steve McQueen), moody lyricism (Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay), or an all-annihilating formalism (the team of Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump). The title of Hot Fuzz (2006) underlines the flashy, essentially ingratiating MO of a writer/director whose eye, in both personally cinephilic and generally careerist terms, is always on Hollywood.

Wright’s recurring subject, expressed most clearly in the graphic-novel adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) but present in some way in all of his films since Shaun of the Dead (2004), is the desire to be liked. Beginning with Simon Pegg’s video-game addict in Shaun, Wright likes to set up heroes whose craving for acceptance belies their outsider orientation: think of the forlorn supercop in Hot Fuzz, whose extreme competence at his job makes him a pariah after he moves to the countryside, or wannabe guitar hero Scott Pilgrim, gamely wielding his bass against all comers. It follows that his villains are almost always generic abstractions standing in for groupthink, from shambling zombies and hooded cultists to invading body snatchers.

In Hot Fuzz, the protagonist is tasked with standing up to Masonic murderers who represent reactionary provincialism and murmur mindlessly about “the greater good,” while in The World’s End, a barfly plays devil’s advocate against alien AIs trying to colonize earth in their own faceless, blandly corporatized image. Wright’s skepticism about conformity is seemingly more personal than political: what he fears is the curtailing of individual expression. But there is satirical agility in The World’s End, where Pegg’s nigh-unbearable Gary King rejects a proposal that’s tantamount to the franchising of humanity and, as a result, triggers a global disaster that unfurls in his own belligerent image. At once the most overworked and underrated of Wright’s “Cornetto” trilogy, The World’s End is also its director’s most conceptually complex movie, acknowledging the lure and danger of wanting to not grow old—arrested adolescence as paradise and apocalypse in one.

It’s also a great showcase for Pegg, a wonderfully elastic comic actor who never quite stretches his characters thin. His remarkably crisp and proficient performance in that film (and Shaun and Hot Fuzz) owe in part to the fact that he has a co-writing credit on each title: one reason that he inhabits these roles so fully is that he helped to create them. While it might be too simplistic to say that Wright generates the technical pyrotechnics and Pegg supplies the soul, the flaws of Baby Driver hint that this equation roughly adds up. Not only is Wright’s American studio debut weakened by the work of its star, Ansel Elgort—a performer so gormless that by comparison he makes Michael Cera look like Robert Ryan—but its greatest liability is its screenplay: the filmmaker’s first-ever fully solo effort in this area. Baby Driver is so poorly written on levels of plot, characterization and (especially) dialogue that Wright’s typically first-rate craftsmanship fails to save it—and, in context, even becomes its own source of annoyance. This gifted director’s relationship to his own style, which is usually so multifaceted and fascinating in its way, has become blithely untroubled, and similar to the same malignant narcissism that mars the work of his pal and sometime collaborator Quentin Tarantino. The difference is that where QT now eagerly imposes his obsessions and fetishes on material that exists well beyond his previously circumscribed, postmodern frame of reference—an exploitation that produces sometimes revelatory discontinuities of intent and effect—Wright seems content to stay cozily inside his wheelhouse, risking next to nothing and achieving roughly the same.

Ansel Elgort as Baby, an ace getaway driver.

Ansel Elgort as Baby, an ace getaway driver.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) helps Debora (Lily James) do her laundry as they dance around each other and kiss.

The guiding formal conceit of Baby Driver is that its hero, Baby (Elgort), an ace getaway driver indebted to Doc, a vicious Atlanta crime boss (Kevin Spacey), uses pop music to insulate himself from the reality of his criminal activities. Each time he takes an assignment, he makes a new iPod playlist whose contents serve simultaneously as rhythmic inspiration and a means of moral and intellectual detachment—he puts himself in a trance and lets instinct take over. It also allows him—and by extension, the pop-addled auteur for whom he is so clearly a surrogate—to enjoy himself. In the precredits sequence, Baby marks the time between his crew entering the bank they plan to rob and their emergence with satchels full of money by rocking out to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms;” even with the car in park, there’s a delirious sense of movement timed to the sweep of windshield wipers. The song’s stop-start propulsion carries Baby through the ensuing high-speed chase with police cars, which has been beautifully assembled, in its way; working in bold, primary colors (Baby’s car is as cherry red as Prince’s little Corvette) and cutting purposefully on movement—not only within the frame but also in time to the music—Wright mounts an action-cinema ballet. He then extends the conceit quite imaginatively through a credit sequence that features Elgort traipsing blithely through downtown Atlanta, lost in a headphone reverie—his natural state even when he’s not behind the wheel.

Baby’s need to insulate himself at all times through music is given some narrative justification (he has tinnitus stemming from a car accident in childhood) but it’s also a metaphorical condition. Socially passive and perpetually plugged-in, he’s easily pegged as a Millennial stand-in; in a world of adult role models who are either corrupt (Doc), grotesque (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Elia Gonzalez as criminal confederates), or else benevolently helpless (CJ Jones as Baby’s foster father), Baby’s refusal to engage is akin to a state of grace. That the only person to really coax him out of his shell is pretty diner waitress Deborah (Lily James) is in keeping with the story’s adolescent fairy-tale arc, but it also means that Wright is swapping out one wish-fulfillment scenario for another. Baby’s dawning realization that he’s not only being exploited but also actively participating in terrible, violent crimes cues us for an ambivalence that never quite arrives. Instead, the film buys fully into the teenage-male fantasy of an outcast inspired and finally redeemed by the unconditional love of a cute, steadfast girl whose defining trait is her interest and patience in his traumatic backstory.

Baby (Ansel Elgort, front right), Bats (Jamie Foxx, front left), JD (Lanny Joon, back right), Eddie (Flea Balzary, back left) wait in the car.

There is no satire here, no tweaking of generic conventions or audience expectations, and while a sympathetic critic might conclude that Wright has simplified his storyline so as to really make the style pop on top, it creates the impression that the film is an empty container (or a racecar on cruise control). In Hot Fuzz, Wright and Pegg demonstrated an intertwined affection and understanding for the dynamics and clichés of buddy-cop movies—peaking with a delirious combination parody-tribute to Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991)—but the attempts at crime-thriller terseness here are labored and embarrassing. The delight in Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim of seeing (and hearing) one-liners put across as much by shooting and editing choices as the actors’ delivery is nowhere to be found in Baby Driver: the stream of veiled threats and ultimatums that flows between the thieves is simultaneously unconvincing as tough talk or homage. Only Jamie Foxx, as the tatted-up sociopath Bats, is able to put across the dialogue with something approaching conviction; more emblematic of the film’s failures are Spacey and Hamm, both of whom are permitted to lean into lazy, predictable shtick.

And then there is Elgort, whose physical presence—lean and elongated like a dancer—is just right but who can’t generate identification or empathy; or, conversely, the kind of authentic, uncomfortable strangeness that could make Baby Driver bracing in spite of its crowd-pleasing aspirations. The baseline, for his performance and for the entire movie, is a kind of slightly outré cuteness, as it was in Scott Pilgrim, which kidded indie-rock navel-gazing and managed to make it seem like its protagonist’s self-actualization came from somewhere inside him (expressed through the video-game image of Michael Cera pulling a sword out from his own chest cavity).

The hyperbolic but totally bloodless carnage in that film suited the low-stakes solipsism of its downtown Toronto milieu, just as the gore in Hot Fuzz worked with its rural-Gothic setting. Baby Driver’s gradual and unsettling drift into brutal urban violence—including the deaths of several police officers and gunfire directed at innocent bystanders during a shoot-out set piece—gives the impression that Wright is, for the first time in his career, truly out of control, or else oblivious to the signals he’s giving off. And Baby’s dawning realization that his actions actually have consequences that can’t just be drowned out doesn’t mean much when 1) the script doesn’t ever really have him get his hands dirty and 2) his comeuppance is so perfunctory. A crime-doesn’t-pay coda patterned after Raising Arizona’s (1987) prison-yard prologue is so perfunctory as to be laughable (as opposed to satirical), a mere speed bump on the way to total, unsullied redemption, embodied (once again, unironically) by a woman who’s just happy to ride shotgun. Virtuosity becomes its own reward—and what that’s worth at this point in Wright’s career is another question altogether.

Adam Nayman, a film critic in Toronto, is a contributing editor to Cinema Scope and a contributing writer for Cineaste.

Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 4