If you hadn’t noticed, Hollywood is a bit obsessed with The Familiar these days. It’s the rare weekend in the summer tentpole season that we get a film that isn’t a remake, reboot, adaptation, or part of an already-established film franchise. Enter Baby Driver, the latest film from British director Edgar Wright.
While the film isn’t perfect (it falls apart in its third act, falling short of some of Wright’s greatest works — i.e. Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, and Spaced), it’s quite unlike anything we’ve seen in cinemas in a long while. And, in an age where franchise is arguably the new Hollywood genre system and the already-established rules all, Wright walks the line between familiar and novel incredibly well. Let’s take a minute to discuss just how good Wright is at some of the things Hollywood often fails at in this Age of The Familiar…
Wright is a master at mixing homage with subversion and heart.
Baby Driver isn’t the first time Wright has proven his skill at taking something old and making it new through subversion. Spaced, his comedy TV show written by and starring Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes, drew heavily from everything from The X-Files to Star Wars, while telling its own smart, subversive story.
It was a show that managed both to pay homage to the nerdiest stories of the past few decades and to lovingly subverted their tropiest tropes. When Colin the dog gets kidnapped and the gang plan a Star Wars-style rescue mission, it’s funny because it’s playing on on many of the tropes from the film, but we also care because we care about Colin, dammit.
After Spaced, Wright made the Cornetto Trilogy, a series of films that took the subgenres of zombie movies, the buddy cop film, and the alien invasion flick, and refreshed them in subversive and entertaining ways for the pop culture savvy audiences of the modern era.
Wright is a Have Your Cake and Eat It Too kind of filmmaker. When he is at his most successful, as he arguably was with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, he is able to both make fun of and use the tropes of a specific genre to tell a story filled with characters and stakes we care about. It’s that latter part that so many modern parodies and satires get wrong, and the element that is missing from Wright’s relatively weakest work (at least in this writer’s subjective opinion) — i.e. Scott Pilgrim, The World’s End, and, to a certain extent, Baby Driver.
While Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz especially arguably never sacrifice their emotion-driven storytelling for style, I would argue that Scott Pilgrim, The World’s End, and Baby Driver prioritize form over content, instead of finding a way to balance the two, and are the weaker for it.
In Baby Driver, Wright attempts to use soundtrack to give us the interior life of our protagonist. It’s formally ambitious and a partially successful attempt, but, ultimately, like the soundtrack he listens to, Baby feels more like a carefully-constructed mixtape than an organic, original song. His edges show, unraveling the pretense of a fictional world by calling attention to the high-concept work that went into his creation. Thankfully, for this movie, where Baby’s character fails, the originality of this world delights. We don’t need to be convinced that it is real to enjoy its offerings.
Wright rewards the media literate audience.
Wright’s style of filmmaking is unique and valuable in the modern Hollywood era not only for the way it walks this line between familiar and novel and between satirical and sincere, but also for the ways in which it rewards the accomplished viewer. As I mentioned before, Wright makes movies for people who understand and obsess over movies. Unlike many of what Hollywood has to offer, Wright assumes a certain media literacy from his audience. Satire and homage don’t work, otherwise. While Baby Driver is still entertaining, even if you don’t get all of the movies referenced or tropes played into and/or subverted, it’s arguably more fun if you do.
Hot Fuzz does this particularly well because it rewards the viewer not only for outside knowledge, but for paying attention within the context of the film. Almost every joke that is mentioned in the first two acts of the film comes up again in the film’s climactic third act. Mr. Treacher really is hiding a shotgun under that puffy jacket. The shop sign insists that only one schoolchild is allowed in the shop at a time, a rule which proves to be its ultimate downfall. The swan Nick and Danny tried to catch while on patrol appears again to both dramatic and comedic effect as they are chasing down Frank and Simon Skinner. Wright rewards the viewer who pays attention.
Edgar Wright’s depth of homage.
While Baby Driver leans hard into American sensibilities far more than anything Wright has done before (though Scott Pilgrimdabbled), taking the American car film as its main homage subject, the film’s specificity of vision and mash-up of the musical and car heist genres make Baby Driver something we’ve never seen before: an action-musical that is eager to mix genres that aren’t aimed at the same kind of viewer.
It doesn’t hurt that, like most of Wright’s films, the works that seemingly inspired Baby Driver are broad and varied. Wright’s style of homage has always tended toward the deep pastiche rather than the shallow parody. He deconstructs the subject matter only to reconstruct it meticulously into a fascinating Frankenstein’s monster of a cinematic experience rather than a simple generic copy or clone. This specificity of vision paired with a broad depth of homage can be best seen not in Wright’s references to famous car movie moments, but rather what Baby Driver owes to a notably non-American cinematic touchstone…
I’m referring to Jacques Tati’s Playtime, a film of the French New Wave set and filmed in 1967 Paris. The urban quasi-musical loosely follows two protagonists — bumbling Frenchman Hulot (played by Tati) and a young American tourist named Barbara — as they make their respective ways around the city.
In Baby Driver, Ansel Engelwort’s Baby has many Hulot-like moments, interacting with and observing the world around him in a way wholly different and arguably more intense than his fellow characters. (Most notably, in his first coffee-getting scene in which he bops along a city boulevard blurring the line between his music and the reality of the space.)
Like Playtime, Baby Driver treats urban space like a playground full of potential meaning and music to be found in the most mundane of urban interactins and activities — from the traffic around a roundabout to pedestrians entering and exiting a shop. Playtime even has its own section called “The Carousel of Cars,” in which Barbara’s tourist bus drives to the airport amidst a ballet of cars.
While Wright has not explicitly mentioned Playtime as a direct inspiration for Baby Driver, the director has referenced Tati before and shared this tweet back in 2014 which, in the context of Baby Driver’s release, seems particularly relevant. It’s an important non-American reference to keep in mind when discussing the American sensibilities of Baby Driver.
— edgarwright (@edgarwright) September 17, 2014
Wright has been thinking about Baby Driver for 20 years, but this tweet was posted four months after Wright’s departure from the MCU when he was looking for his next project.
Familiarity doesn’t need to exclude experimentation.
Baby Driver is a meticulously-crafted original work of art that is familiar enough to draw in Hollywood audiences, while original enough to keep us entertained and to challenge what is possible within the Hollywood model. While I would argue that Baby Driver doesn’t quite stick its landing, the Baby Driver experience was non-stop, toe-tapping fun — worth it for the ride.
It is also another Wright-directed example of what is possible when good directors are given the freedom to experiment outside of a franchise or an already-established storytelling property, while still staying within the familiar lines Hollywood has always drawn for its audiences.