By Kyle G. King. American comedies are often championed for their naturally charismatic players, those dashing few who bring to the fore big ‘random’ laughs. Those comedies from the past few decades — as fun and rife with talent as they might be — usually reveal themselves as little more than lightly-edited improv theater packaged in a shiny movie wrapper. Staggering visual gags, once a cornerstone of comedic film, are difficult to find these days, though UK auteur Edgar Wright has carved out a career laden with them. Here the man behind Shaun of the Dead ditches flesh-eating zombies for crooks and fast cars in his first American film, Baby Driver. (Shh, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was produced in Canada.)
Ansel Elgort is the movie’s titular lead as Baby, a driver with a lead foot and a concentrated demeanor. He doesn’t talk much and he’s constantly listening to music to drown out the hum in his ear due to a car accident as a child. As a lead, Elgort is more of a blank spot for the film to project its heart upon, so Wright surrounds him with a cartoonish cast of criminals in Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eliza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal, Flea, and Kevin Spacey, playing the crime lord ringleader, Doc. The entire ensemble scrambles within Wright’s well-orchestrated chaos, a movie that could pass as an 113-minute sequence of quasi-music videos featuring Baby driving to a rhythm as though he were dancing with his car.
As a getaway driver, Baby pays back the money he owes to the calmly threatening Doc, but each new team of criminal partners Doc throws his way grow exceedingly frustrated with Baby’s meditative driving style. Wright mixes a strange cocktail of big angry personalities with calm and collected ones and then tries flipping them upside down in an attempt to show depth beyond the shtick. As fun as the car chases and action are, the characters crash into each other and eventually muddle the laughs (to say nothing of the drama). Instead of well rounded satirical action characters, Wright is left with hammy stock heroes who take themselves too seriously. The film becomes crowded with easy outs, one-dimensional tropes and zingy one-liners, all of which undercut the talent on display.
Outside of the action, the comedy and the neck tattoos is a love story between Baby and Debora (Lily James). The two kids feel trapped in a city (that nobody will call Atlanta) and want nothing more than to head west listening to music in a car they can’t afford with a plan they don’t have. It’s a sweet cowboy sentiment and Lily James’s doe eyes and natural charm provide the heart that Elgort’s stone-faced character often won’t allow. But the heartfelt romance of the film is undermined by the heartless caricatures surrounding them. It’s the most effort Wright has put forth into a sincere romance, and it’s a stride forward for him, but he shoots himself in the foot trying to sync up two genres into one substantial movie.
Baby Driver shows that either Edgar Wright doesn’t understand Hollywood movies, or that Hollywood movies don’t deserve Edgar Wright. (Look at his doomed flirtation with Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man as a possible example of both.) Wright’s edge is dulled here, given little room to build upon his personal brand of visual comedy storytelling. Leaning too hard into silly action and not hard enough into romance and comedy, Wright’s Baby Driver is fun enough. But is it transcendent? To borrow from the Simon & Garfunkel song of the same name, “Scoot down the road.”
Directed by Edgar Wright.
Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, and Nira Park.
Written by Edgar Wright.
Starring Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Bernthal, Eiza González, Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx.
Rated R because crime, son.
6.5 out of 10