If you’re going to have a gimmick (and, as Sondheim tells us, you gotta have a gimmick), you’ve got to be consistent with it. Baby Driver is a film with music and cars. There’s a pun in there about combining the two for “careography”, but let’s not go there — because writer/director Edgar Wright (The World’s End) certainly didn’t. Here is a film that forgets its central conceit repeatedly, starring a man devoid of personality, and Jon Hamm at the greasiest you’ve ever seen him.
Getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort, The Divergent Series: Allegiant) has to do one more job for Doc (Kevin Spacey, Netflix’s House of Cards), then he’s out of the heist game. Just as he plans to run away with waitress Debora (Lily James, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), Doc makes it plain: he and Baby are now straight, but Baby’s not out. Instead, Baby has to team up with Buddy (Jon Hamm, Keeping Up with the Joneses), Darling (Eiza González, TV’s From Dusk Till Dawn) and Bats (Jamie Foxx, Annie) to rob a post office.
Baby has tinnitus from a car crash, and he constantly listens to music to drown it out. Baby Driver is set to the soundtrack of Baby’s life, which suspiciously thematically matches the action on screen. Wright devised the film around the soundtrack, and “on the nose” is often the phrase best used to describe the effect. A prime example of this is something being wrong with Baby, and Baby walks into a diner that is playing “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby”. It’s an incredibly literal film in this sense.
Wright’s commitment to diegetic music makes this seem far more contrived than if he had just overlaid music on scenes; in this regard, Baby Driver is the opposite number to Suicide Squad, but Baby Driver has the smugness of an auteur rather than the self-satisfaction of a committee. Wright often can’t decide whether the music is instrumental or ornamental, and the mix never quite works — and nothing makes sense about gun shots in time to music. If you can’t tell at any given moment if a director is aiming for realism or stylised action, it’s possible the director can’t either.
In Wright’s defence, however, he does know how to choreograph an action sequence on wheels. Baby’s stunts seem as if they would be effective in affecting a getaway from a crime scene. Due to his slavish adherence to the music, the scenes on foot work less well: in a rare running chase scene, a chair is clearly on screen just so that Elgort has something to jump over. It doesn’t make sense and lacks visual flair.
Though Wright has assembled an ensemble of some renown, he has them lead by an actor who is traditionally a black hole for personality and chemistry. Though Elgort’s complete lack of affect is built into the character, it’s difficult to care for him; that he falls in love with Debora not only because she’s there but because she reminds him of his late mother adds layers of meaning you’d rather not think about in an action movie. Luckily, James is good, and Foxx is loathsome in an intentional way. Hamm and González have a strange but effective chemistry, although Hamm ends up having to chew his way through some of the most deliberately(?) awful action-movie patter since the nineties. Spacey just comes across as smug, and, like the film that surrounds him, he’s written completely inconsistently.
Baby Driver is very much the sort of film that you’re either instantly onside with or off. The problem is that if you love the music and its synchronicity with the action on screen, there’s probably just not going to be enough off it; if you can’t stand the opening, there’s going to be just enough of that sort of stuff to turn you off a film that can never quite decide what gear it’s in. Baby Driver is too much the soulless good boy doing bad things; what it lacks in substance it can’t hope to make up for in style.
Baby Driver opened in Australian cinemas on July 11, 2017.
Directed by: Edgar Wright.
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Eiza González and Jamie Foxx.