Baby Driver (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Baby Driver (2017)

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Planning a getaway?  You need Baby behind the wheel.  He's been stealing cars and leaving the police in a disappearing trail of exhaust since he was a kid.  Just when Baby thinks he's found love and can get out of the getaway business, he's called back for one last job.  Edgar Wright wrote the screenplay for and directs Baby Driver, and stars Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, and Jamie Foxx.

Let me pull you in on a secret I've been able to keep for about an hour and a half - I was rooting for Buddy (Jon Hamm) toward the end of Baby Driver.  I have a soft spot in my critical heart for villains who abandon the pretense of meaning behind their actions and are upfront about what they do.  It's not always this way with Buddy, and a common theme of all Edgar Wright's characters in Baby Driver is that they put on a false front to push themselves through their crimes.  Buddy is a driven villain by the end, and as cheesy as his promises to get Baby (Ansel Elgort) are, Hamm drives them home with his best big-screen performance while Wright bathes the combatants in blue and red lighting that make Buddy's showdown with Baby a titanic good vs. evil clash.

The other reason, and the one more troubling for Baby Driver, is that Baby is a blank slate living selfishly and without consequence.  Wright crafts Baby with a conventionally heartbreaking backstory that doesn't excuse the callous way Baby treats the world.  We get glimpses of this in a bravura single-shot sequence where Baby dances through Atlanta without a second thought to the people around him.  Baby shoves people, rightly earns scorn from a coffee shop employee who wants to get this kid his coffee so he'll leave, walks in front of traffic with a bow and a smile, and generally acts like the kind of entitled ass who needs a slap.

Jon Hamm's performance goes through so many excellent transformations throughout Baby Driver that he might as well be credited with separate roles.

This isn't a big negative on Baby Driver but it's one that keeps it from placing among Wright's best.  Shaun of the Dead ends with Shaun's mother dead and his best friend turned into a zombie because of his inability to take responsibility for himself, and The World's End finishes on the literal end of the world because of main character Gary's irresponsible "cool" making a case that the world isn't worth saving.  Baby seems to be going down this path with real and violent repercussions for his destructive selfishness.  Then Baby Driver moves on, the consequences play out, and Wright chooses to end on a series of shots that leave on fantasy in lieu of consequence.

Consider how Baby's life and Wright's movie are scored from first frame to last with an excellently curated selection of music guided by Steven Price.  For all the modern-age academic writing on the hidden depths of pop music - a lot of which I agree with - it's still not uncommon for it to be treated as disposable.  The focus on pop and classic hits further paint Baby's insular worldview where people are as disposable as music and even the care he lavishes on his foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) is at the cost of Baby's criminal life that started well before he ran across Doc (Kevin Spacey).  Big points to Wright and Price for having the unique taste to feature Queen while focusing more on Brian May's guitar than Freddie Mercury's vocals, but it speaks more to the tastemakers behind the camera than how well the tunes comment on Baby after his disruptive dance.

I'm being hard on Baby because, well, it's his movie and without those tiny moral twists that conclude Wright's best work Baby Driver frustrated me by how close it came to total excellence.  The men of Baby Driver are written with such nuance that it's good to remember Wright got his start with the gradual character growth required on television.  Each appearance by Buddy, Doc, the gangster-posturing of Bats (Jamie Foxx), and even the single showing of Jon Bernthal as one of the first characters to directly challenge Baby, add another complex layer to their role in each heist.  Hamm's performance is the best as seen when the menace slowly morphs his face and body into a hulking brute ready to rip Bats apart.  Bats is the most interesting, adopting the language of Black Lives Matter as an excuse to rob banks ("That's our money they stole from us") while laying into Buddy ("You acquired the kind of debt to make a white man blush.")

The women aren't as fortunate and show Wright is a once-in-a-lifetime talent who still can't write well outside men.  Buddy's wife Darling (Eiza González) spends most of Baby Driver making out with Buddy, aggressively flirting at Bats (not with him, one of her few character twists), and loudly talking about the sexy times she's going to have after the heist.  Each character may choose how to define themselves but the easy way she slides into "sexpot" is a reminder she's still being written by a man.  That's bad, but the way Baby's love interest Debora (Lily James) is written is borderline embarrassing.  Debora is even more of a blank slate than Baby, who's lit as the literal sunshine to Baby's life, falling in love with him almost immediately, and just so happens to share all of his interests.  Considering how some of the most reviled pop manages to paint a more complex portrait of women in a few minutes it's a shame some of that love on the soundtrack couldn't rub off on Debora.

Yeah, this is basically what I was thinking of back in the day when listening to one of my favorite Third Eye Blind songs.

Gotta remember this is an Edgar Wright fantasy we're talking about, and by embracing more restraint than Scott Pilgrim vs. The World he makes it his purest fantasy to date.  Baby and Debora's first date is the kind of beautiful connection worthy of the best pop as Wright's camera follows the two connected by earbuds throughout a laundromat (now that I think about it, Third Eye Blind did write that song.)  The final clash between Baby and Buddy comes after several scenes of exciting stunt-driving of the highest caliber where candy-colored escape cars engage in sweet cat and mouse with the police.  And as wary as I am of Baby's charity, the way Wright drops the dialogue to feel the music when Baby signs in conversation with Joseph is a comparatively quiet moment of tenderness.

Baby Driver is a ton of fun and deserves to stand tall alongside Split and Get Out as 2017's greatest entertainments.  It's just not one of Wright's best.  Shave the last couple of minutes and Baby Driver might have landed with the same punch as The World's End or Shaun of the Dead.  Is it worth sacrificing the fantasy?  Maybe, but I can only review the movie Wright released and not the truncated version that's playing in my head now, even if I had a damn fine time watching it.

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Baby Driver (2017)

Screenplay written and directed by Edgar Wright.
Starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, and Jamie Foxx.

Posted by Andrew

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