BABY DRIVER is a tale of two movies. The first is what I can only think to call a near-musical, where a young ace driver performs to tunes of ipod a bevy of death defying maneuvers any one of which could get you killed everyone in the vehicle if inches are missed. The diegetic music and the ways it inadvertently syncs with the driving, turn the driving into a metallic dance. Said driver, Baby, as it where, sees himself as having an equal grace when he’s on two feet. This is not necessarily the case as he his frequently getting told to “watch out” as he, still listening to music that we hear as the soundtrack, dances down the street weaving in and out of foot traffic and performing a little routine. The sequence is reminiscent of both Gene Kelly and Tony Manero. It is screaming out to be a bigger more musical moment, to allow that energy of the opening chase to carry over, to look and feel even more choreographed. Instead, director Edgar Wright stays mostly close on Baby and robs the scene of its potential. Moments later another scene evokes Gene Kelly’s first appearance in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, where he fluidly moves about a tiny apartment, turning every action into a dance. Here, Baby is making a sandwich for his foster father and moves through the kitchen in much the same way, but instead of a wide shot where we can appreciate that movement and the space, Wright cuts needlessly through the scene, even breaking the 180 degree “rule” for no apparent reason. Here again the scene seems to end before it begins, right when you’d expect a more musical moment. A scene in a laundry mat also seems primed to burst but Wright holds it back. This continues throughout these lighter moments of the film (mostly in the first third of the feature).
The other movie within this movie is a hyper violent, fairly conventional cops and robbers flick about a young man who lost his parents (abusive father, loving mother) in a car accident and becomes a car thief/joy rider in an attempt to control the thing that took the life of the only person who loved him. One day he gets caught by a bigger criminal, Doc, played by Kevin Spacey, and rather than turn him in to the police Doc sees what an incredible driver Baby is and blackmails him into being the getaway driver on a series of robberies. But don’t worry, he’s cool, once Baby pays his debt he’ll be free to go. Sure sure. Doc, despite claims of being extremely careful and smart about the crews he uses, employs on more than one occasion, Bats, played by Jamie Foxx. Bats is a psychotic (Batshit crazy, haha, yeah we get it) whose pretty much kills or wants to kill everyone he meets/works with. In reality he’s the fun killer. As soon as he shows up (far too early in the film), all the joy and musical whimsy that the, let’s say, first 20 minutes of the film promised is overwhelmed by Bats’ personality and Foxx’s one note performance.
During those delightful opening moments Baby also manages to find a love interest in Lily James’ Debora. Perhaps surrogate mother is a better description though, as she works at the restaurant that Baby’s mother used to work at (which he haunts daily), looks vaguely like her, and sings vaguely like her. There budding romance is kept separate from the cops and robbers narrative, until of course it needs to be integrated so that Debora can become a hostage and a reason for Baby to take up the violence that he has personally avoided during his time with Doc. It’s all quite depressing, particularly when circumstances lead Debora to use violence as well. Despite another 10 or 15 minutes of coda, the movie ended for me with that act, which also finally and completely ends the promise of the film’s opening. Sure, Wright continues to use the diegetic music in the later half, but now he cheats it, bringing in a conventional thriller score when he needs to during later scenes. It sure would have been fun to continue using Baby’s playlist during these moments. But alas.
I’ve enjoyed Edgar Wright’s work since I was first introduced to the show SPACED, which he directed every episode of. I’ve liked all his previous features as well and make no mistake, BABY DRIVER is made with just as much skill as any of them. His usual energy is there as he works with long time collaborators Bill Pope (cinematography) and Jonathan Amos & Paul Machliss (editing). If this had just been a straightforward heist film I’d probably be singing its praises right now but the open teases a much more interesting genre exploration that never materializes. Or rather, gets crushed by the weight of convention and violence. Wright’s had such success adding humor and pathos to genre films, it would have been so great to see him really attack the musical with the same bravado, even in the karaoke style that takes plays here. Is BABY DRIVER devoid of entertainment? No, but it’s the weakest film from a still young filmmaker whose ceiling is very high.