Monday, June 26, 2017

'Baby Driver' (2017) Movie Review

Once again I find myself in the camp where I’m the curmudgeonly asshole who doesn’t like the movie everyone else loves, but I don’t particularly care for Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. It’s fine, just fine, and that’s as high as the praise from this general vicinity is going to get.

There’s a great deal to admire in the film’s construction and especially the rhythm of the editing. To call it a musical is tempting, but that’s not an accurate description. The whole film flows along with a continuous soundtrack of pop songs; every scene, every move cut in time with the onscreen beat. This gives Baby Driver a pulse, a steady 4/4 heartbeat—to the point where in the rare moment where there’s no music provides a jarring experience.

While I appreciate the meticulous care and deft manufacturing that went into crafting the film, I still find Baby Driver insufferable, teetering on straight up obnoxious at times. The film proves relentless in hammering home just how hip and cool it wants to be; desperate and cloying as it scrambles for cultural cache. Seriously, the first scene involves the protagonist lip synching to a deep cut and chair dancing in his car and it’s the most overwrought, masturbatory moment I’ve encountered this year.

Ideally, music in film informs mood and tone, offers insight into a character’s state of mind, or otherwise enhances the rest of the movie. But that doesn’t happen in Baby Driver. Vapid and bland, the characters lack any discernable personality beyond a core trait or two. When things get maudlin, so does the score; the pace kicks up, Wright slaps an up-tempo jam on the turntable. But instead of enriching the surroundings, each song choice plays like a smug, self-congratulatory pat on the back from the filmmakers to themselves about their musical taste. 

This style-over-substance approach can work—I’m not opposed to that in any way, and I adore many films that value aesthetics over meat on the bone. It’s all so easy to forgive if the action delivers. And especially in Baby Driver’s case, the action needs to deliver. But it doesn’t.

Edgar Wright is good at many things, chiefly aping genre trappings and subverting them for his own ends—it’s what he did with horror in Shaun of the Dead, cop actioners with Hot Fuzz, and sci-fi with The World’s End. What he’s not and never has been great at, however, is action—for as spot-on as it is otherwise, it’s the Achilles heel of Hot Fuzz.

Like the rest of movie, the car chases in Baby Driver are fine. But that’s all. They’re passable and workmanlike, but for a movie that hinges on multiple hot pursuits, that’s not nearly enough. As the outlaws tear through the streets of Atlanta, nothing inspires awe or adrenaline or raises your resting heart rate.

And as pedestrian as they are, these car chases form the highlight of Baby Driver. The plot revolves around Baby (Ansel Elgort), a young wheelman for crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) and a revolving door of hoods that includes Bats (Jamie Foxx), Buddy (Jon Hamm), and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), among others. Baby’s been stealing cars since he could see over the wheel, but he heisted the wrong one and wound up in Doc’s debt. He also got in an accident as a child and wound up with tinnitus, which justifies why he constantly has earbuds in—it’s not that he’s a moody, affected millennial, it’s to drown out the “hum in the drum.” In true crime movie fashion, just when he thinks he’s out, they pull him back in, and he must fight to save himself and his new love interest, Debora (Lily James), who he likes because she reminds him of his dead mom.

Problems arise because Elgort has the charisma of a wet sock here—and it’s not him, he’s shown elsewhere that he can be an engaging enough lead. But Baby broods and mopes and spends half of the movie lip synching and air trumpeting. And when he’s not wallowing one affect or another, he fades into the background, a barely visible outline hidden beneath sunglasses and headphones.

When it comes to his relationship with Debora, the two have zero spark or chemistry (not to mention come-and-go accents), and their meet-cute dialogue may as well have been lifted from any mediocre, twee indie rom-com. Seriously, they sit in a fucking laundromat each listening to one earbud and I want to strangle them with the chord.

Hamm and Foxx have a blast diving into their scumbag alter-egos, but there’s simply not much more to them than that. Bats is a crazy mofo, and Buddy loves his lady and cocaine. And that’s all. (And even with that sparse characterization, they still outshine the protagonist and put Baby in the corner whenever they share the screen.) Doc gets a few cool lines, but just as many, if not more, groan-inducing quips, and a drastic late-in-the-game shift that completely clashes with his established character. All of this serves as a metaphor for Baby Driver as a whole: despite a few surface bells and whistles, and a handful of modest fun bits, there’s nothing substantial under the hood.

Baby Driver isn’t particularly funny or thrilling. The action doesn’t deliver. There’s no emotional depth. It’s ham-fisted and cloying. There’s a killer soundtrack to be sure, but outside of the core gimmick, I don’t find much in Baby Driver to recommend.

I have no doubt I’m in the minority among film critics and the like—I know it’s not the end-all-be-all, but as of this writing, Baby Driver currently sits at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. The studio obviously has big hopes, as they shifted it from an August release to a prime, late-June spot with stiffer competition—it opens the week after Transformers 5, which also seems like a ballsy move.

But to me, this feels like a movie people saw and fell in love with at a film festival. It has a very specific type of hype and buzz that often comes out of those events. A friend recently referred to Wright as “Friend of the Internet Edgar Wright,” which sums it up well. As beloved as he is in certain film-centric circles, he’s never had a mainstream hit, and I can’t envision a scenario where Baby Driver changes that. Public sentiment coming out of my screening was decidedly split. I anticipate another Scott Pilgrim vs. the World situation, where the critical acclaim comes hot and heavy (duh, that’s already happening), but where it crashes at the box office. [Grade: C]


Anonymous said...

Spot on review. Saw it twice, second time hoping I'd feel differently, but no. Masturbatory and nonsensical.

Brent McKnight said...

Thanks! We might be the only ones who feel that way. I get the eerie sensation that I'm about to be run out of town and banished to a deserted island because I don't adore it.

Anonymous said...

You are not alone. I agreed with everything you said except where you talked about there being car chases, plural. There is one, at the movie opening, and that's it. The hype had you thinking there was more. No idea how these half-backed screen plays turn into full productions. With no background in script writing anyone could add value to the movies ideas.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your review. Just watched it. Its obnoxious, cringy, and in love with itself. Im pretty sick of these over-the-top completely unrealistic films. Tarantino does that but he does it well and the films are always aware of themselves. This one isn't. I've watched too much of The Wire to really feel any of this rock-n-roll too-cool heist nonsense. The whole flashback stuff where he gets his first Ipod just had me cracking up...