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July 2017 | Charlotte Gajek

Baby Driver shows how a filmmaker’s passion can bring true joy to an audience.

The last time I encountered Ansel Elgort in relation to music was in the music video to his song ‘Thief’. I sat there, gaping and cringing, wondering why somebody on his management team hadn’t decided to intervene in time. (Watch it, if you dare.)

So the prospect of watching him in the lead role in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, where the premise is founded on the importance of music, made me wary. Luckily Wright is the one who curated the playlist here, Ansel Elgort merely gets to show off his white boy dance moves.

He plays Baby, a gifted getaway driver who stole the wrong car when he was (even) younger and has been paying off his debts to the owner of said car, Doc (Kevin Spacey) ever since, transporting criminals and loot out of reach of law enforcement. His last job seems just around the corner when he meets waitress Deborah (Lily James), who is all smiles and big dreams, giving Baby a reason to escape the clutches of his boss and deranged henchmen Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza González), and Bats (Jamie Foxx). While the underlying premise of a young, exceptionally gifted driver who continuously listens to music to drown out an accident related tinnitus is catchy, the general plot doesn’t hold many big surprises. This is a heist movie with added heart, the bare bones of which we’re familiar with, we’ve seen before. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Wright’s focus isn’t solely on story, but also on execution. The precision of the editing in the car chase sequences and the choice of songs at very specific moments, help to elevate the familiar to another level, making one thing very clear: this movie is supposed to be fun.

It feels like a passion project; even if every review and article written about the film didn’t mention it, it would still be palpable, everything about it feels like a filmmaker telling a story he wants to tell, having fun at every twist and every turn. In a studio climate in which the only movies deemed profitable are superhero franchises and are therefor the only movies that get made anymore, it is incredibly refreshing to encounter a film that doesn’t fit into today’s recipe for guaranteed success. Superhero fatigue is real and setting in fast, and one can only hope that Baby Driver’s box office success will open the doors for original storytelling.

Still, Baby Driver isn’t perfect. The first 30 minutes are pure joy, the combination of unique characters, soundtrack, and editing making for an intensely gratifying joyride that you wish would last until the very end. Except sadly it doesn’t. 

Somewhere after the midpoint it begins to stumble, too fast for its own good and instead of being able to regain its footing, it seems to escalate before falling flat on its face. The ending doesn’t fit the story and seems more like a half-hearted attempt to infuse the fantasy with a little dash of reality. Only Wright clearly doesn’t want to go all the way and instead settles for a confusing and unsatisfying compromise that doesn’t do the film justice.

These overall weaknesses aren’t helped by the fact that some of the characters feel underdeveloped. It could be fair to say that Wright’s movies have never really emphasized unique, complex, layered female characters. Ramona Flowers was intriguing, Mary Elizabeth Winstead able to tread that thin line between manic pixie dream girl and actual human being, but the film was always about Scott Pilgrim. The women in the cornetto trilogy always feel mainly like an afterthought, playing third fiddle to the Pegg/Frost bromance. Still, Wright has gotten older and undoubtedly progressed as a filmmaker, so it is disappointing to watch Baby Driver and be less than impressed with the writing for its women. Darling, married to Buddy, wildly in love and wildly insane, could have ben a fun character, illustrated as a stereotype, while still commenting on it, if not even subverting it. Instead she’s all sensual purr and skimpy outfits and whenever we get a glimpse behind the act and see the lunacy and hardness in her eyes, she’s instantly shut down by one of the men. She feels like a stand in, placed there haphazardly to keep an open space, to which a writer will return later to flesh out a real person, only to then forget about it. It is a wasted opportunity and causes a decent amount of eye rolling. Lily James’s Deborah doesn’t fare much better. A pretty, bubbly waitress who enjoys music and the open road, she feels like the female extroverted version of Baby, showing his love for himself more than his feelings for another human being. We don’t learn a whole lot about her during the course of the movie, but she appears to be a genuinely nice person with a soft spot for outsiders. Which is why her actions – or, more accurately – her reactions in the last 20 minutes of the movie feel so incredibly out of character and unrealistic. Whatever moral compass she had in the beginning seems to have dissolved entirely. It throws into question everything we seem to know about her, raising the suspicion that she wasn’t a real character from the start and bends whichever way Baby’s story needs her to. That being said, Lily James still steals the movie. Her Deborah smiles wildly and jokes with real warmth, never appearing artificial or overbearing. She imbues the character with an underlying sadness that seems to fascinate Baby, only sadly, we never get to discover where it comes from.

The fact that Lily James shines brightest, although she appears in about half as many scenes as Ansel Elgort, may appear to insinuate that he doesn’t do a good job. But he delivers a solid performance, his boyish features highlighted in tight close ups and the way he moves his body to the rhythm of his music is endearingly awkward. His Baby is both cool and weird at the same time and it makes for an enjoyable protagonist to follow. Still, I cannot help but feel like in the hands of a different actor, Baby could have been a more interesting character. He may have childish features and an infantile name, but the work he does, the people he is involved with, and the decision he ultimately makes, tell a story of a very different person. There’s something darker underneath those shades and another actor might have been able to portray those subtleties a little better. 

Despite all of this, Baby Driver is a fun ride, filled with laughs, incredible chases – the stunt driving, all of it real, no green screens, puts the Fast and the Furious franchise to shame. The importance Wright places on the soundtrack, weaving it directly into the story, might make the movie appear more like one big music video but in this particular case that is a good thing. The music, all songs unique and unexpected at times, elevates the already enjoyable story and you can’t help put tap your foot along.

All imagery courtesy of © Sony Pictures

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