When making 2004’s smash zombie hit Shaun of the Dead With Baby Driver, Edgar Wright referred to it as the world’s first rom-zom-com. Now he tries his hand at an action-movie-meets-musical with Baby Driver, a film that often feels like Wright thought of the title first and worked backwards from there.
Referencing the Simon and Garfunkel track of the same name (which makes a slightly too obvious appearance at one stage) the title here refers to a young man called Baby (Ansel Elgort), who is a getaway driver (geddit?) for a criminal syndicate led by the charmingly vicious Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby is a reluctant wheelman, pressed into service in order to pay off a debt to Doc; lest we doubt what a swell guy he is, he’s also a kindly carer for his deaf foster father (CJ Jones) and utterly smitten with Debora (Lily James), a cute waitress from the cafe where his beloved late mother used to work.
Baby’s defining characteristic is that he constantly has headphones in his ears, playing a steady diet of classic rock and soul in order to drown out chronic tinnitus. These songs soundtrack nearly every minute of the film, and in Baby Driver’s best moments the rhythyms of music and film march together in lockstip, whether it’s Baby dancing in his car as Jon Spencer Blues Explosion blares, or fleeing a heist to the tune of Focus’s Hocus Pocus. At one point he halts a robbery until he can cue up the perfect Damned riff.
Indeed, the problem is not that Wright commits too much to his mad car-chase rock opera, but too little. The heists are, without fail, uproariously enjoyable scenes of grandiose insanity, but they make up only a surprisingly small fraction of the film. Filling the gaps in between is a relatively predictable and humdrum gangster story, as Baby is pulled into One Last Job alongside a team of sociopathic armed robbers: Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) and the truly insane Bats (Jamie Foxx), who takes an instant dislike to Baby’s odd quirks. “I’m the one with mental problems in this crew,” Bats angrily informs him at one stage.
The heist crew are all enjoyably deranged (particularly the ever-wonderful Foxx), but only occasionally are they given a chance to really shine. Still, they do better than poor Lily James. She’s always been a winning presence but there’s little she can do to rescue Debora, a woefully underwritten character who’s saddled with some truly heinous dialogue (“I want to head west on 20, in a car I can’t afford, with a plan I don’t have.”) She gets no arc, no real progression: her sole purpose in the film is to serve as motivation for Baby. She’s more of a walking pair of doe eyes than a recognisable human.
Even more baffling is what exactly she sees in Baby that would make her willing to go through hell and back for him. He really is a relentlessly dull character, with little to say and with a barely sketched back story that makes little sense (would someone who watched his parents die in a brutal car crash really be so keen to become a driver?). ‘Aren’t you mysterious,’ Debora says at one stage, but the truth is there’s not much to Baby at all. Elsort gives it his all, strutting and dancing while sporting a never-ending series of sunglasses, but he nonetheless feels miscast, coming across as a little dorky when he should be shit-hot. Wright sometimes seems to be aiming for a True Romance-style Bonnie & Clyde romance for Baby and Debora, but True Romance worked in part because Patricia Arquette’s adoration of the ultra-cool Christian Slater made sense; by contrast, Baby’s just a little awkward.
For all its faults, Baby Driver is rarely less than entertaining, and its 113-minute runtime flies by. The heist scenes in particular are wild thrill rides, choreographed with genuine flair. But far from reinventing the car chase movie like it threatens at one stage to do, in the end Baby Driver doesn’t do much more than put a glossy new coat on genre cliches. It never quite takes full advantage of its silly but fun high concept. Too often it applies the brakes when it should be putting the pedal to the metal, and ultimately Baby Driver is a really great music video stretched further than it can go.