Edgar Wright‘s opening salvo into more mainstream films has everything you could want in a massive bite of action escapade, but it’s mashed together in a way that leaves the whole far less than the sum of the parts. That makes for a generally decent effort, and one that is hard to evaluate, because if you pick any particular piece, it’s hard to call it a flaw. Still, something about Wright’s ability to weave a complete picture is as problematic here as it has been in his other titles, like Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End, but in those gooftastic vehicles it hardly matters if you manage a serious level of cohesion.
The titular Baby (Ansel Elgort) finds himself driving for criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey), but he’s trapped into the affair because he’s working off a debt. Doc is the guy who sits in the shadows hatching schemes and putting together crews to pull them off. It might be a bank one day, a post office the next, but Doc runs the job, and he keeps all the participants from knowing too much about each other, or working together more than once. Baby is a special case though, and he has mad (largely irrelevant in real world circumstances) skills as a driver.
Baby also has tinnitus, and constantly listens to music to keep from having the ringing in his ears drive him crazy. Said affliction is the result of childhood trauma, as is a great deal of his psyche, and the film does an impressive job letting us into who Baby is without going overboard.
The film kicks off well, giving us a chance to see Baby’s skills, and none-too-subtly clarifying the fact that he isn’t happy about people getting hurt during the commission of these heists. We see Baby work with a variety of accomplices, including Buddy (Jon Hamm), Griff (Jon Bernthal – The Walking Dead), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), Bats (Jamie Foxx), and several others. While he’s at it, Baby spends a lot of time at a diner where his mother used to work, and he naturally meets a waitress, Debora (Lily James), so that he can fall for her in record time.
The real heart of the movie comes by way of the infusion of music and a rather odd central character into what is ultimately a fairly standard genre effort. Baby wants to get out of this game he’s trapped himself in, and Doc is a guy you don’t want to mess with (though why this is the case isn’t actually clear). We watch some heists go down, Baby pays off his debt, but Doc has another big score, and we all know that you don’t really ever get to walk away. Baby now has something people can threaten, and we’re going to see a lot of cars going fast. There aren’t actually a lot of surprises when it comes to hitting the bullet points of the plot. Even the fact that one of the crew spends a lot of time messing with Baby, and Buddy’s defense of him (because that’s ironic-ish later), is just so much genre standardization.
The music, and the fact that Baby is… well, so dancy, is the only spin the movie has, and it’s one that’s pretty interesting and entertaining. As soon as things get too serious, we’re listening to a new song to shift gears, or we’re just walking the streets with someone who actually has a constant soundtrack to their life. It’s fun and oddly whimsical, which makes for a great counterpoint to the caustic events that are often surrounding us, and/or the characters that might decide to off you at any moment.
Like I said, every piece of this puzzle is brilliant, and that obviously includes all the actors. Spacey is delivering the most solid effort at character in years, and though Hamm’s character goes a little overboard at the end, he’s a treat as well. Elgort is perhaps not perfect, but he’s close enough that it doesn’t hurt the film. The majority of the plot works well enough, and is even often its own sort of nod to the genre as a whole, and the action is everything you could hope for.
The problem is that this is a collection of pretty pieces that don’t seem to look like anything when you finally put them together, and beyond that it’s like sitting down thinking you’ve got 500 pieces and realizing that there are another 5,000.
It’s a film that is so interested in selling you a character and his motivations (and kudos on that score itself) that it runs in circles much of the time and ultimately becomes boring. There is no point in a movie like this that an audience should find itself wondering when something is going to happen, but Baby Driver spends so much time reinforcing things that have already been established that it can’t hope to avoid losing its connection with viewers.
Still, Wright makes the kind of errors you hope for, if there must be some, because if you can lose yourself in a thrill ride (and are disappointed by things like the Fast and Furious franchise) there’s a lot to love about this one. It just doesn’t come together…, or care much about physics.