I remember when I got my first mp3 player. I was in high school, probably either a junior or a senior and I was late to the Ipod party but I had already been collecting song files for a while at that point through various less than legal sources like Limewire and Kazaa. Rather than actually get an actual mp3 player when I was on the go I’d burn albums onto CD-Rs and carry a binder of these burned CDs around in my backpack and listen to them on a red Sony discman that would periodically skip if I bumped it around too much. It was an astonishingly annoying way to listen to music but that didn’t occur to me until I finally got a 5th Generation iPod (the first model that also played video) and quickly began to wonder how I ever lived without it. A few years later I gave that iPod to my father who traded me for the 80gb model that he bought without actually needing the extra space and I still have and regularly use that 80gb 5th generation iPod to this day. I’ve never upgraded to the iPod touch because until recently they didn’t have the space capacity for my 12,000+ song music collection and even now they are making higher capacity touches I’m reluctant to switch to them as I enjoy the simplicity of a device with actual buttons and since my decade old iPod still hasn’t broken I don’t need to worry about replacing it. Anyway, I bring this up because the new Edgar Wright film Baby Driver is, among other things, a celebration of music and the way we listen to it when on the move and it’s medium of choice is the same Apple product that revolutionized 2005 me’s various bus rides.
Baby Driver is set in contemporary Atlanta and follows a baby-faced young man who goes by the name Baby (Ansel Elgort). Baby seems to be about eighteen and looks like he’s barely old enough to have a driver’s license and yet seems capable of driving with the speed and precision of Dominic Toretto, The Transporter, and The Driver from Drive all wrapped into one. This skill seems to have been the result of an almost autistic drive to become a master after experiencing a traumatic car crash as a child and this has also led him to some other strange mannerisms. He’s a very quiet person with a compulsion to record conversations he has and more importantly seems to be wearing earbuds and listening to music at almost all times. This mix of skills have led him to be a rather unlikely getaway drivers for robbery crews and he’s currently doing this to pay off a debt to a mysterious heist planner named Doc (Kevin Spacey) who claims that Baby is only a few more jobs away from being square with him, but it quickly begins to look likely that he’s not going to let Baby get away so easily and given that Baby has recently met a young waitress named Debora (Lily James) that he’s thinking about running away with whether Doc wants him to or not.
The first thing you’ll notice about Baby Driver is that the thing has wall to wall music in the background. There’s a very wide mix of popular music on the soundtrack from various decades and genres. It will happily transition from The Damned to The Commodores to Beck to Young MC and more often than not it goes for the deep cuts from these artists rather than the super recognizable songs you might expect (though there are a few of those too). At times it feels a little bit like Edgar Wright is just trying to show off how deep his knowledge of semi-obscure music runs, but he is at times able to capture what the experience of listening to pop music is like and how it can tap into your feelings and how you can use it to relate to others. If Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was about what being a little too obsessed with videogames does to your mind Baby Driver is about what being a little too into music does to you. What’s more Wright is able to use this music to choreograph both the action scenes and some of the quieter moments where Baby is just getting coffee or dancing around in his apartment because he’s pining for Debora.
The character of Baby is and remains a bit of a blank slate through much of the movie. You get some sense of his past in the movie and a basic gauge of his morality but he is ultimately closer to being a collection of ticks and quirks than he is to being a fully human character and his past with the accident at times feels more like a contrivance than a believable backstory, but it is nonetheless a pretty interesting move to make an action movie starring someone like this. I also don’t know that I really bought too much into the relationship between Baby and Debora, or at least I didn’t necessarily see what Debora saw in Baby. There is definitely something of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl quality to Debora; she’s this amazing and almost angelic chick who just falls into Baby’s life and instantly falls madly in love with him for seemingly no reason other than that he’s nice and has cool taste in music. That’s not a believable relationship, that’s a nerdy crate digger’s fantasy. Granted, Edgar Wright already did try doing a dive deep into the push and pull of human relationships in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and I certainly didn’t need more of that, so maybe it’s for the best that he just stuck to a simple “boy meets girl, girl falls for boy” relationship this time around.
If the protagonist and love interest here don’t quite work perfectly Wright makes up for it by bringing a pretty entertaining assortment of colorful characters to fill in the heist crews that Baby works with. Notably, Kevin Spacey is pretty interesting in the movie even if he isn’t really venturing too far from his usual on screen persona of being this sort of intense guy in a suit. I guess what makes him interesting here is that he’s sort of a fish out of water; he’s ordering around these tattooed thugs and he doesn’t take himself as seriously as his exterior would have you think. Jon Hamm also shows up playing a bank robber with a sort of Bonnie and Clyde thing going on with his girlfriend/partner in crime played by Eiza González. It’s a pretty good vehicle for Hamm, who has been pretty desperate to show off his comedic chops after spending seven seasons playing the intense and tortured Don Draper on “Mad Men.” This is a good vehicle for him because he can be this quirky presence while still playing things straight and using that intensity that he’s capable of. Finally, there’s Jamie Foxx who plays this just completely unstable thug who adds a real streak of dark humor to the whole movie through his causal relationship to violence and general lack of control.
Edgar Wright is, above all, a filmmaker who is very interested in exploring genre tropes and seems particularly interested in the action movie. With Hot Fuzz he tackled traditional action conventions through outright parody and he also examined action filmmaking in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World he also tried to examine action filmmaking by (in my opinion rather awkwardly) adding metaphoric action scenes to what is essentially a non-genre story. With Baby Driver Wright comes closer to taking on the action movie in a more direct and somewhat sincere way. The film is not really a comedy exactly. It’s not aiming for a laugh at every turn and there are real deadly stakes involved in its various action scenes, but it’s not a movie that takes itself wildly seriously either. Action movie tropes like bank heists, standoffs, and car chases are played straight but there is a subversion in that Wright seems to be removing a lot of the bravado from the proceedings. Baby is not a typical action hero either in look or in attitude, he’s up against people who aren’t exactly the kind of evil we’re used to seeing our action heroes fight against, and by mixing almost all of them with pop music rather than Hans Zimmer scores or something Wright gives the movie an altogether different tone than someone like Michael Mann would.
As these things go I think it’s pretty to safe to say that Baby Driver is a very fun spectacle but also an ephemeral one. It’s definitely style over substance and the character beats don’t really land as well as the themes of friendship did in Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End. It’s been something like two days since I watched it and I can already sort of feel it escaping my memory despite how much I enjoyed watching it. Edgar Wright has never been a filmmaker I’ve been terribly inclined to revisit the work of despite some pretty obvious talent on display and despite it in many ways his most shallow effort I can still probably see myself revisiting Baby Driver more than some of his other movies for reasons I can’t quite place my finger on. It might simply be because it’s his least referential effort which is least reliant on overt references to other specific movies and pop culture (outside of the music). That or maybe I just really like car chases. Whatever it is that makes this stand out it’s probably the Edgar Wright movie I’ve most unequivocally liked since Shaun of the Dead, which was another movie that had to deal with the burden of a sort of terrible title that it will hopefully be able to overcome at the box office.