At their best (Shaun of the Dead), the films of Edgar Wright can be deeply imaginative, endlessly creative and frequently heartfelt tributes to the genres that Wright loves and champions. But at their worst (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) his movies can be emotionally distancing, narratively obscure, and too interested in pointing out their own cleverness for their own good. Baby Driver, his fifth feature, thankfully leans toward the upper end of the spectrum, mostly tamping down the writer/director’s more indulgent impulses while relying on his ingenuity and originality with often dazzling results.
At its heart, Baby Driver tells a rather conventional story: Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver who works for a crime kingpin named Doc (Kevin Spacey, equal parts benevolent and malevolent) and provides the transportation for the crews that Doc assembles to pull off a brazen series of daytime bank jobs. Baby is working off a debt he owes Doc and plans to get out of the life as soon as he’s all settled up with the boss. But Doc doesn’t want to let him go just yet, thanks to Baby’s amazing, nearly superhuman skills behind the wheel.
Making Baby’s path more difficult are the dangerous members of Doc’s latest crew, including drug-addled Wall Streeter turned crook Buddy (Jon Hamm), his trouble-starting girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) and the possibly psychotic Bats (Jamie Foxx), who adds a murderous new wrinkle to the operation. But the biggest complication of all may be Debora (Lily James of Cinderella), the sweet and full-hearted diner waitress that Baby meets and wants to escape with once and for all.
Sounds like the ingredients for a certain kind of heist thriller we’ve all seen before, perhaps most recently in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive. But what elevates Baby Driver is that Baby, afflicted with tinnitus from a life-changing incident in his childhood, keeps his earphones on and the music pumping almost ceaselessly to keep the ringing away. So the soundtrack of his life becomes the soundtrack of the movie, and Wright edits the film almost perfectly to the music, creating a kinetic rush of a cinematic experience that also brings us intimately into Baby’s head, heart, and point of view.
Elgort may not be our most charismatic young actor, but he’s got a winning smile and physical bouyancy that he deploys sparingly as Baby, fleshing out a character who can seem either enigmatic or empty from the outside. He’s aided immensely by Wright’s script, which creates a fully rounded picture of Baby’s universe and how he organizes it. That universe is populated by characters who are given just enough interesting information for seasoned pros like Hamm, Spacey, and Foxx to run with them, breathing life into what could have been stock figures. It’s also nice to see the lovely James out of corsets and period dresses for once, even if her Debora is the least defined of the major characters (a pity we don’t get more of Jon Bernthal, who exits the film early but could out-crazy everyone).
Then there is the action: the driving scenes are pulsating, mind-blowing ballets of screeching wheels and spinning vehicles, flawless in their execution and poetic in their grace. It’s a shame that there aren’t more of them, as the film’s final third struggles and fails to avoid the more predictable developments of the genre that Wright has gleefully toyed with for the first two acts. The filmmaker ends up not having a whole lot more to say as the movie draws to a relatively satisfying but somewhat weak close, as if he himself was too impressed with the flights of fancy introduced in the early going to think of a follow-up.
That doesn’t mean you’ll leave Baby Driver disappointed; whether it will linger in your mind past the initial buzz is up for debate, however. But it’s a hell of a lot more fun than the impenetrable Scott Pilgrim and more earnest than the capable but somewhat perfunctory The World’s End, his previous effort. Wright continues to be an ambitious, eminently skilled and wonderfully cinematic filmmaker, and Baby Driver may not be a return to form exactly — because he hasn’t left his “form” behind — but it’s his most accessible and exhilarating ride in a while.
Baby Driver is out in theaters this Wednesday (June 28).