When Mad Max: Fury Road hit the screens two summers ago, the crowds and the critics alike lapped it right up. It was an insanely popular movie, made a gazillion dollars at the box office, even got nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Your humble correspondent was one of very few reviewers who scoffed. “In a word, ridiculous,” wrote I; nor have I any intention of retracting that evaluation. Regular readers will know that, coming from me, “car-chase movie” is not a bland, judgment-free descriptor of genre. Maybe it’s a testosterone-deficit thing, but screeching tires and crunching metal do nothing to excite me. I never thought I ever needed to see another one of their ilk.
Dear Reader, I was wrong, and at least a few of you fellow art-house cineastes are wrong along with me. So it is to you that I preach today: You absolutely do need to see Baby Driver. The car-chase-movie fans were already out there in the cinemaplexes on opening weekend, so they don’t need to hear this from me. You do.
Yes, the flick is loaded bumper-to-bumper with screeching, crunching chase scenes – way too many of them, really. But they’re taken to their cinematic apotheosis by director Edgar Wright and his crew. You know that opening number of La La Land, where all the occupants of cars stuck in a freeway traffic jam jump out and prove themselves to be incredible dancers and gymnasts? Imagine that scene, only with the cars dancing as well, everyone absolutely on the beat. That’s sort of what Baby Driver is like. It’s all about cinema as a rhythmic artform. And it will rock your socks off.
Wright is primarily known as a purveyor of off-the-wall British cult comedies, notably the three films that make up the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy: Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007) and The World’s End (2013). But he also has a background in making music videos, and there’s a level on which Baby Driver seems like the product of a brainstorming session on the subject, “What would it be like to make a featurelength music video? Could we sustain that perfect pacing for an hour-and-a-half?”
The answer is: Yes they could, and they did. The results are a stunning example of what can be achieved with top-tier cinematic craftsmanship. Every white-knuckled swerve of the getaway car, every step or turn of an actor, every word or pause of dialogue is choreographed so exquisitely to the bouncy pop soundtrack that you will be awestruck. If this movie doesn’t pick up a slew of awards for editing and sound editing (not to mention direction), I’ll eat my iPod.
Aside from being a ceaselessly pleasurable meditation on the possibilities of visual rhythm, Baby Driver is also very wittily written, full of juicy nuggets of criminal argot. The story is nothing especially original: Orphaned boy drawn into life of crime, meets nice girl, tries to extricate himself from bad company, encounters and overcomes obstacles. But it’s darkly funny in the Edgar Wright mode, peppered with quirky secondary and tertiary characters. Set in Atlanta, it only superficially loses his British accent; his almost-but-not-not-quite-Pythonesque approach of calmly juxtaposing the absurd with the mundane remains intact. Imagine Charles Crichton’s 1988 English heist comedy A Fish Called Wanda with all American characters (and nonstop music) and you’ll get the basic flavor. There’s even a thug, known as Buddy (Jon Hamm), who may remind you of Kevin Kline’s Best Supporting Actor turn as the dim-but-conceited Otto in Wanda.
Screenwriter Wright’s best monologues go to Kevin Spacey as robbery-ring mastermind Doc, to whom protagonist Baby (Ansel Elgort) is paying off a long debt by acting as his ace wheelman. Spacey’s delivery is so dry and controlled that he could be an alien lifeform, like the pod people in World’s End, but it must’ve been a true thespian challenge not to crack up while delivering these lines. Jamie Foxx also admirably underplays Bats, a veteran bank robber whose reputation as a loose cannon is belied by the shrewdness that tempers his free-floating rage. Young Elgort’s acting didn’t exactly floor me, but he does what he needs to do to hold up his end, speaking little but always choreographing Baby’s life to match the sounds that come from his earbuds, drowning out his chronic tinnitus.
The burgeoning romance with a diner waitress, Debora (Lily James), that motivates Baby to find a way out of this loony bin of thieves and killers is contrastingly sweet, even innocent. The happy ending that it supplies feels a little tacked-on; but that’s a relatively minor quibble about a movie that is otherwise so deliriously enjoyable that mentioning it almost seems a crabbed reminder-to-self that a critic needs to be critical at times.
Lightweight but smart, Baby Driver is a tour de force of filmmaking skill; it’s also a hoot and a half that just flies by. The summer of 2017 now has its perfect summer movie. I just might need to see it again – next time, perhaps, at a drive-in.