With Edgar Wright's unpretentious skills and exuberant iconography, Baby Driver is an ear-pleasing neo-noir mixed with romantic classics.
It’s convenient to dismiss Baby Driver as style-over-substance when this refreshing crime caper is a passion project from the poptastic Edgar Wright (Cornetto Trilogy, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). It follows a whiz-kid driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort), who uses music to tune out the tinnitus in his head after a tragic accident. To pay his debt, he works exclusively for crime kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey), transporting his changing crews to rob banks and escape from the crime scenes. Enters Baby’s troublesome life a lovely girl—Debora by Lilly James, just like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Baby Driver” without the sexual subtext. And once upon a pair of wheels…
The critical acclaim for Baby Driver—a pulp story with a lollipop feeling of comic book mise-en-scène—can easily leave the audience confused: the music is banging, the story is simplistic, and characters sometimes act unreasonably. But make no gullible mistake because Wright already triggered our suspension of disbelief in the first ten minutes. We’ll return to the high-octane chases later, don’t worry, and focus now on the second scene when Baby goes out to buy the coffee. After a successful job, Baby strides the streets dancing to Osymyso’s remix of Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle”. We can spot stylized lyrics on the graffiti alongside his walk and hear music beats fixed into the cacophony of daily life. More than just Wright’s visual panache, this is Expressionism at its most telling and immersive with prevailing histrionics. From this moment, the audience would ideally look at this story from Baby’s subjective viewpoint. It mesmerizes our cognitive sensibilities by staying harmonious with his cheerful, gracious, daring spirit of Romanticism.
So the opening chase welcomes us with its blazing bravura and kinetic impression, paying homage to Walter Hill’s The Driver (and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive if that counts). Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms”—the perfect choice for this scene—brings the sensation of UK garage to Atlanta. If the first half of the song warms our perceptive engines while Baby is waiting for Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza González), and Griff (Jon Bernthal), the second explodes when the baby-faced savant rushes into action. Here, Wright’s avid fans can see the visual similarities with Mint Royale’s “Blue Song”, a 2011 music video Wright shot to experiment an idea he had conceived more than a decade. The script was written according to Wright’s song choice—from Barry White, Queen, and Beach Boys amongst others—as he half-intended for Baby Driver to be a two-hour music video.
For this movie, scenes aren’t only strengthened by music but are also taken over by music like the way Baby depends on his various iPods to be the best getaway driver. Beats and melodies drive the narrative as certain actions and movements come with synchronous beats, strikingly during an arms deal with The Butcher (a shady Paul Williams). Like Baby, the cast always had music in their ears, whether with the earphones or wireless earwigs, to douse themselves in the rousing action. The soundtrack marries the visual rhythms, and that’s where Wright’s knack for editing came into play.
To reach the deepest of heart and mind, Wright mobilized every sharpened skill in his artistic repertoire: whip pan, smash zoom, elliptical editing, you name it. Foreseeably, he also directed this condensed story not without winks and nods to nostalgia—fanboy homage paid to a variety of pop culture remarks. All of these trademarks are nonetheless moderate, proving the dexterous director needed not to rely on crowd-pleasing elements from his well-known works. When a certain song’s duration fell short of the scene’s running time, Wright proved his creative problem-solving to extend the time frame by having Baby rewind the song (due to the robbers’ incompetence). With exposition being kept brief by charismatic, character-driven pleasantries, our perception of sight and sound is engaged and galvanized along the developments.
Baby Driver isn’t a CG-fest like the Fast & Furious franchise. In frenetic junctures of betrayal and improvisation, near-misses usually turn into hits, followed by the screeching and burning skidmarks. To achieve fierce sequences of dashes and impacts, Wright and cinematographer Bill Pope mostly used practical effects. They shot on locations with lively set pieces and thoroughly choreographed stuntwork, bringing the in-camera and in-the-moment feel to action scenes. They don’t just focus on vehicle pursuits but also foot chases—a swift escape in the third act has Baby either trotting or sprinting by the changing tempo of Hocus Pocus’ “Focus”. As film elements can entrance the narrative propulsion, the action is not for show or just offers the adrenaline rush. Most of them become crucial to the ending Baby must face, maybe even without our notice because we often take kindness for granted.
Okay, this movie might be Wright’s technical magnum opus, so what about the story? In the dirty world of crime, Baby, with sunglasses from cars he stole and mixtapes created out of short recordings, tries to navigate his coming-of-age morality. His past events create a full-fledged person; the flashbacks are associated with a mixtape of his mom singing, which is put at the center of his collection. Because of this nostalgic attachment, he eats at her workplace and meets his lady love there.
Debora, whose lip-biting can sometimes be too flirtatious, is crooning “B-A-B-Y” by Carla Thomas before she and Baby have an intellectual rapport about musical anecdotes. Their dalliance is condemned jaunty and shallow by many viewers, but apart from the charming chemistry between Elgort and James, the relationship works on sentiment and intuition. Remember the coffee-buying scene? Then at the laundromat, their first date fans the heating spark of affection using more musical connection, with the passionate colors of yellow, red, and blue spinning in the background.
This young love is, of course, muffled by Baby’s uncanny colleagues. Jamie Foxx’s appealing turn as the devious, offbeat antagonist Bats captivates the audience while he poses a serious problem for Baby. Folly yet insightful by the dining table, he eloquently challenges Buddy and Darling before attacking Baby’s weakness, Debora. Bats feels at home hurting others, and Baby’s kindness irritates him. Likewise, his violent and overpowering tendency displeases Baby so much that the boy wonder takes control of the movie and rushes it to the third act. Another memorable side character is Doc, whose nephew steals a hilarious scene. Spacey played him with the dead-pan, imposing expressions, even when joking—“He puts the Asian in home invasion.” The big boss fathoms Baby for what he is and exploits his talent and ultimately joins the movie’s flow of sentimentality. Hamm’s Buddy and González’s Darling look like the upper-class Bonnie and Clyde, and their courtship is even more believable than Baby and Debora’s. In this couple, Hamm stands out as Buddy shows humanity through his bonding with Baby—the music reminds him of another life without brutality and illegal acts. With great individual performances, side characters emit energetic stagecraft from their postures and chitchats.
Wright must’ve been against the indifferent look of Ryan O’Neal and Ryan Gosling because Elgort is nothing like the tough-guy type. Baby’s relationship with his deaf foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) is comical and heartwarming. He doesn’t try to be aggressive or dominant but instead, is a nice boy forced to carry out crimes. This quality shines even more with his well-intentioned behaviors with strangers. In this aspect, Baby Driver is the other side of Spectacular Now on the same coin. A young man who works amongst such negativity could stay pure at heart but still craves intimacy. Using lively tunes, he shields himself from the proximal materialism and violence, breathing life into the mundanities through his mixtapes. The only problem with Baby Driver is its post-climax ending, which is necessary but takes too long to wrap up the story. The fantasy-like closure calls back to an earlier scene, harmonizing fairy tale and reality.
Baby Driver is a neo-noir mixed with classic Romanticism, playing out in a modern setting and announcing the celebration of a bright worldview. With unpretentious skills and exuberant iconography, this is Edgar Wright affirming his autonomy to Hollywood studio system. Movies like Baby Driver should be deemed quintessential summer flicks. Soon.
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