Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Film Review: Baby Driver

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable 
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

Baby Driver is a cool movie.  But it isn't nearly as cool as it wants to be.

Now, I am a huge fan of writer/director Edgar Wright.  He has produced some of the most visually dynamic films in the last 20 years like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.  With Baby Driver, he is taking all of his skills and applying them to a genre that is new to him: action film.  Yes, the above-mentioned movies are heavy on the action, but they are all action-comedies.  Baby Driver is the most serious film Wright has made, even though it has such an wretched title.  

The story centers around Baby (Ansel Elgort) is driving savant who has tinnitus which he drowns out with his "hear-how-cool-I-am" music playlist.  He is indebted to criminal boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) and so has to complete a certain number of jobs as a getaway driver.  He is nearing the end of his debt but still has to encounter the likes of Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his lover Darling (Eliza Gonzalez) who are like a tatted-up Bonnie and Clyde, as well as the short-fused Bats (Jamie Foxx).  Baby keeps stoic and silent in the company of these chatty and violent people.  He takes care of his deaf and infirmed foster-father Joseph (CJ Jones) and has a romantic spark with the local waitress Debora (Lily James).  Baby wants out of this life even though he is incredibly adept at it.

And we can see how adept he is in the action sequences.  Wright is a master at filming scenes with incredible energy.  He not only knows how to choose some of the most exiting and visceral camera shots, but he is one of the few directors that is masterful at using editing transitions to create a sense of emotion and dynamism.  Every time Baby got behind the wheel of the car, I felt myself perk up because the chase scenes some of the most fun I have seen in a movie.  Modern chase scenes always carry with it a constrictive element because of the use of helicopters and the like to find the getaway car.  Wright uses that to create a tightening noose around Baby every time he drives and makes the time behind the wheel even more exhilarating.  If you are looking for a movie that has better driving sequences that The Fast and the Furious franchise, then I would check out Baby Driver.

Having said all of that, the movie never breaks through to the levels that it wants to achieve.  All of Wright's previous movies are essentially comedies with action and drama.  Baby Driver is an action movie with drama and some comedy.  The serious undertones are not really the problem, as Wright actually raises the emotional stakes well as Baby is drawn further into the world of evil.  In fact, Wright does something only confident directors do: he withholds visuals.  Some of the most effective moments are when Baby looks away or walks away for a little while and returns to find someone is not where they should be.  The implication is that this person has been killed, but not showing it creates a wonderfully creepy air around the world Baby lives in.

But the dialogue felt very much like Wright trying to hard to sound like Tarantino.  It wasn't bad or flat, but it just felt a little off, like a nerd trying to imagine what how kids talked at the cool lunch table.  That along with his increasingly obscure and hipster-y playlist kept reinforcing how much Wright wants you to think that his movie is cool.  The problem is that in order to really be cool, you can't care if people think you're cool.  One of the reasons his other movies resonate so well, is because he embraces and projects his utterly nerdy side and doesn't care if you judge him for it.  That is cool.

The movie is also incredibly violent and dark.  That isn't necessarily a criticism, but the characters are so generally so morally bankrupt that it becomes uncomfortable to spend time with them.  This may have been Wright's whole intent, because if you make the environment too likeable then you cannot identify with Baby's desire to get out.  But the bad guys never reach the level of identifiability that villains in Tarantino films do.  In fact, in one scene a bystander in a truck gives chase to Baby and his gang and I remember thinking that I would love to watch a movie about this unnamed hero.  He seemed so much more interesting to me than all of the bad guys.  And to be fair there were some nice surprises, both light and dark, in these characters.  But it felt like these traits were given to serve the plot points.  In other words the characters had complexity but not depth.

But the biggest detriment to the movie is Elgort as the lead.  I would not say that he is a bad actor.  In fact, he does carry off the physical bits of the movie with great aplomb.  But he lacks charisma.  And I do lay that on his shoulders and on Wright's.  Baby spends much of the movie in stoic silence.  As our main character, we need to be in his head and identify with him even when we disagree.  He needs to smolder with a fierce, silent intensity like a tightly coiled spring ready to pop out at you.  This is something that requires intense effort and concentration, which I don't see in Elgort.  Someone like a Joseph Gordon-Leavitt would have been perfect for a role like this.  But Elgort does not pull it off.  Instead of stoic and aloof he looks bored and pouty.  He doesn't come off as strong and silent but feels like a typical disaffected millennial.  Wright does his best to infuse him with coolness.  There is an early long-continuous shot in the movie (something Wright did so well in Shaun of the Dead) that is meant to highlight how cool Baby is.  But it just doesn't work because Elgort lacks the essential charm to pull it off.

That is a shame because the other performances are actually pretty good.  Hamm is surprising in the range he demonstrates.  Foxx offers a constant sense of fuming menace.  Gonzalez turns from compassionate to crazy without it feeling false.  Spacey is strangely threatening and paternal at the same time.  Lilly James has a character that is pretty flat but she gives her enough emotion and life to make her interesting.  Jon Berthnal is criminally underused as a criminal named Griff.  When I came to the realization that he was not going to be in most of the movie I was severely disappointed.

And while there is much darkness in the film, it doesn't give the characters easy outs.  Baby may have been forced into his work, but he is still complicit as an accomplice to theft and murder.  That blood does not wash off his hands easily and to his credit Wright doesn't let that be the case.  While the driving is cool, Wright makes the life of crime seem distasteful and a life of love and kindness seem attractive, which is an improvement on Tarantino.

The faults of the movie that I have been cataloguing are not here to bury the movie.  In fact, I mostly like it.   There is much to enjoy in this movie, which I very much did and I was glad to have seen it.  However I am disappointed.  Edgar Wright is too good of a talent to make a mediocre movie.

And yet that is what he made in Baby Driver.

3 out of 5 stars.

No comments:

Post a Comment