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Non-Review Review: Baby Driver

Baby Driver is largely about keeping the wheels spinning.

Circular imagery recurs throughout the film. At various points, long-take sequences begin and end in the same location, following characters as they move in a literal circle. At other points, the camera remains static while characters leave the frame to one side and enter from the other, creating the impression that they have just lapped their environment. Baby Driver is populated with objects that go all the way around to end up where they started; the clicker on an iPod, the drum of a washing machine, the wheels on a car, the subwoofer on a stereo, the record on a turntable.

Tune in, and cop out.

Even the dialogue and story move in something approaching a circle; recurring patterns of bad behaviour and errors in judgement, repeated lines offering a sense of symmetry to the story. In one of the nicer smaller examples, both the extended opening and closing sequences make a point to place the eponymous getaway driver behind the wheel of a striking red Subaru. Calls and response, echoes and refrains, patterns and sequences. It all comes around, Baby Driver suggests.

There is very little novel or innovative in Baby Driver, which feels very much like an attempt by writer and director Edgar Wright to construct a more conventional crowd-pleasing film than cult hits that defined his earlier efforts. A lot of Baby Driver feels conventional and archetypal, a conscious choice on the part of the director. While the supporting cast features any number of interesting players breathing life into familiar criminal archetypes, Baby Driver suffers from the fact that its two leads are its least satisfying element.

Drive baby.

Baby Driver is arguably built as a showcase for Edgar Wright. As such, he eschewed the familiar chemistry of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost that anchored Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and World’s End. Working entirely from his own imagination – and his obvious affection for old-school crime and car chase films – Wright is not directly adapting popular source material, as he did with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. As such, Baby Driver seems built around Wright’s talents as a director.

On a purely technical level, Baby Driver is an impressive piece of work. The movie is beautifully constructed, an elaborate blend of different elements designed to play off one another. As one might expect from Wright, the movie has a kinetic and energetic quality, demonstrating the obvious affection that Wright has for the medium and the genre. Baby Driver moves and pulses with an energy, which feels appropriate given its subject matter.

Car-ry on.

Baby Driver sound amazing, as one might expect from Wright. The soundtrack is pitch perfect, populated with radio standards sure to keep the audience nodding along, and sprinkled with a handful of genuinely impressive deep cuts. The soundtrack is as much a character in the film as any of the actors, to the point that it repeatedly forces the audience to acknowledge its presence as part of the fabric and texture of the film itself.

It is over-simplifying things to suggest that Wright has made a feature-length music video, an observation that feels much fairer applied to something like Kong: Skull Island. Instead, Baby Driver is a fusion of sound and vision. In one early sequence, the refrains from a funky classic insert themselves into the background of an impressive long-take, with Wright essentially performing an act of geographic karaoke. Towards the climax, characters exchange gunfire in perfect time to the beats of the music playing over the speakers.

Fine dining.

Baby Driver suggests that sound is the key to memory, and a tether to history. Baby is the ultimate hipster getaway driver, recording all of his conversations on tape, mixing them to funky music beats, and then recording them all on cassette. These musical moments are then catalogued, each one a gateway to a particular moment or recollection. In the centre of the collection sits one labelled “Mom.” A broken iPod becomes a holy relic, tying back to memories of happier times, transmitted through the rhythm and beats of the stereo system.

There is something endearing in this idea, with Wright consciously weaving the nostalgia of “dad rock” into the fabric of his story. These classics are not just present to appease the audience and to keep them tapping along, they are also recognised within the film itself. Modern popular culture is fixated on nostalgia, as reflected through everything from Independence Day: Resurgence to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. There is something to be said for films that acknowledge this nostalgia as a matter of their very existence, like Baby Driver or Trainspotting 2.

I lover it when a plan comes together.

At the same time, there are moments at which Baby Driver leans a little bit too heavily into nostalgia for its own sake. Often, characters treat memory as motive, falling into familiar patterns and echoing lines for no reason beyond the fact that these elements are familiar. Seeking to assure a nervous mob boss, Baby awkwardly quotes Monsters Inc. When one character wonders why Baby keeps attending a particular diner, another speculates that his mother used to work there.

Within the world of Baby Driver, pop culture becomes a shorthand for character development. Characters quote Dolly Parton lyrics as sage wisdom. The two lead characters seem to fall in love with one another based on little more than the fact that they can both identify songs that include the other person’s name. Characters frequently have “meta” conversations with one another, conversations about the conversations that they would have in a lesser crime film.

“Don’t try to out-Hamm me, boy. I’m Jon Hamm.”

In many ways, these are stock tropes for Edgar Wright, and he employs them with a great deal of skill. However, Baby Driver is missing two key ingredients that have elevated Wright’s earlier work, drawing attention to the absence of elements that might easily have been taken for granted. Most obviously, the biggest problem with Baby Driver is the two lead characters. Baby and Debora are not so much characters as archetypes; the young guy in too deep with the wrong people, the waitress dreaming of a better life.

To be fair, most of the rest of the characters are also archetypes. However, those small roles are elevated by striking character turns. Jamie Foxx is clearly enjoying himself as the token hothead “Batz.” Kevin Spacey is suitably icy and enigmatic as the managerial Doc. Jon Hamm oozes sweat and desperation as one half of the obligatory Bonnie and Clyde coupling, while Eiza González brings energy to his companion. Even Jon Bernthal has a small and effective role early in the film.

Bernthal, baby, Bernthal.

The problem is that the script never develops Baby and Debora into fully-formed human beings, and that neither Ansel Elgort nor Lily James are capable of finding anything deeper. In hindsight, it demonstrates just how lucky Wright was to find the comedic pairing of Pegg and Frost, who had the ability to extend fairly straightforward character briefs into something resembling fully-formed human beings.

The other element lacking in Baby Driver is a sense of irony. Wright’s direction is heavily stylised and dynamic, but it also draws heavily from the rich history of cinema, in a way that could easily seem like outright theft. Wright has always managed to sell his cinema homage through a wry sense of irony, an acknowledgement that his films are aware of their inspirations and that his scripts acknowledge the conventions to which they must adhere.

Cutting through the tape.

Baby Driver plays itself relatively straight for a film directed by Edgar Wright. There are faint traces of irony to be found, in the way that characters seem aware that they are in a crime caper. However, the bulk of the movie plays into all the tropes and conventions of a heist and chase movie, untempered by a knowing grin or a winking nod. Baby Driver is a smart and shrewd crime film that moves to its own rhythm, but it still has to play all the standards.

This is particularly apparent when Baby Driver hits its climax, which is a very conventional (and very effectively filmed) action sequence. However, once the movie’s primary antagonist reveals himself, he suddenly becomes unstoppable in the way that villains in big bombastic action films tend to be unstoppable. This bad guy is left stranded, and improbably escapes. This foe is shot, and survives. This man is pushed off a sharp drop, and still somehow comes back. There are points at which the villain in Baby Driver seems like a creature escaped from a monster movie.

If anything, The Love Guru proved that Mike Myers is scarier than any horror movie villain.

It is an absurd piece of plotting that completely strains credibility, but the kind of story beat that Wright could excuse in Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz or The World’s End by virtue of the self-aware irony of it all. Instead, Baby Driver plays its climax entirely straight, rather than acknowledging it as an absurd genre homage. The result is frustrating, occasionally feeling the sort of ridiculous plot elements that Wright would lovingly goof off in his other work.

It makes sense that Wright would eschew these elements for Baby Driver. In many ways, Baby Driver feels like the work of a director trying to handicap himself and to strip away certain stylistic elements that might be seen as handicaps. It is clearly intended as a very straightforward showcase for Wright’s sensibilities, to push a little bit outside his comfort zone by demonstrating that he can make a solid crowd-pleasing film without these crutches. It is a common stage in the evolution of any director; Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire.

Hey, Buddy.

Indeed, there are a lot of elements in Baby Driver that work very well, demonstrating just how skilled Wright is as a director. The film makes excellent use of colour, presenting a world that feels consciously heightened and stylised, whether the bright sheets being washed in the dryers lining the wall of the laundromat or the three red cars moving in harmony along the freeway like a set of synchronised swimmers. Indeed, the film’s use of colour is cleverly wedded to its sense of sound; tellingly, the colour drains once the soundtrack fades.

The film also maintains an incredible sense of movement. Even in scenes where the characters are standing around, there is always a sense that something is happening. Even in quiet and conventional scenes between two characters, the editing is impressive and confident. Baby Driver is very much about a guy who is sublimely confident and talented behind the wheel. It just happens that it is not the main character.

Out-Foxxed.

Baby Driver is a fun and poppy piece of cinema, an enjoyable old-school heist thriller that sticks rather rigidly to the template. It refrains from too much comment, trying not to shake the audience out of the film. However, the result is a film where the visuals and the soundtrack seem more alive than the character, where the film’s beating heart exists completely apart from its leads.

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