Edgar Wright (2017)
A challenging prospect and experience for me. While millions get an adrenaline rush watching car chases on screen, they’ve always bored me stiff – all the way back to Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971), though I didn’t dare admit it at the time. Nowadays, I mentally switch off while they’re happening, telling myself they’ll be over soon. Deciding to ignore the car chases in Baby Driver, however, is rather like blanking out the numbers in a musical – a type of film with which Edgar Wright’s action movie has other things in common. The title character, a young getaway driver for the varying teams of robbers recruited by a crime boss, doesn’t only spend his waking life attached to an iPod; at the start of the film, he also prances down the street to the rhythm of the music he’s hearing. The shootouts, of which there are several, are choreographed too – gunshots are synchronised with the beat of whatever’s on the soundtrack. Besides, the writer-director’s unrelenting, eye-catching smartness and shallow wit bring to mind Damien Chazelle and La La Land.
I watched Baby Driver under the misapprehension that I’d not seen an Edgar Wright film before. It transpires that this is rather the first one I’ve seen out: I’d forgotten that Wright directed Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010). I knew he’d made his name internationally with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, which (as I understand it) mix genres and derive their comedy largely from the mismatch of English locations and characters on the one hand, Hollywood genre conventions on the other. Of course Wright isn’t obliged to repeat this formula – it’s good, in principle, that he hasn’t – but I didn’t get what he was after instead in Baby Driver, which is steeped in awareness of other movies but set in Atlanta, Georgia and peopled entirely by Americans. In just about the opening shot, we watch three robbers approach the place they’re about to rob. Baby (Ansel Elgort) waits outside, ready to drive them away when the deed is done. The actors playing this trio (Jon Bernthal, Eiza González and Jon Hamm) are so self-consciously cool they look to be parodying cool. The same goes for Ansel Elgort, at least in the early stages, and others in the course of the picture. But the parodic element of Baby Driver proves to be as superficial as its other elements – the distinction between echt cool and cool manqué gets blurred.
In their showdown at the climax to the film, Baby insists to his boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) that ‘You and I are a team’. Plenty in the audience will find Doc’s reply – ‘Don’t feed me any more lines from Monsters, Inc. It pisses me off’ – reassuringly knowing. Yet Edgar Wright means us to be charmed by Baby’s romance with the waitress Debora (Lily James) and by his essential ‘innocence’ – there’s little evidence of irony here. When he’s eventually brought to trial, after all the baddies have been killed off, a succession of defence witnesses – two women Baby’s encountered in his criminal activities and his foster father Joseph (C J Jones) – testify to the young man’s basic decency. This is not enough to prevent a guilty verdict and prison sentence but it helps qualify Baby for early parole – and allows his happy reunion with Debora at the very end of the film’s very long conclusion. Baby Driver is an unpleasant mixture of jocose nihilism – people, like cars, are trashed with impunity – and sentimentality. I thought I could empathise at least with Baby’s tinnitus but his medical complaint turns out to be a dreary metaphor. The ear injury is the legacy of the car crash that orphaned Baby when he was a child. He keeps having flashbacks to it, struggling to suppress the visual memory as the sounds from his iPod drown out his aural buzz. In addition to listening to music, Baby records and remixes snatches of day-to-day conversation on retro equipment. But among his huge stockpile of audio cassettes, the most precious, labelled ‘Mom’, features his late mother singing.
Ansel Elgort, gruesome at first, is better when he takes off his shades and he and/or Baby stop posing – but not better enough. Lily James is a good actress but works as hard to be radiantly ingenuous as others in the cast do to be insouciant. The two successful performances are those of Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx. The latter is the only one of the robbers who’s naturally hip. He’s able to make cool the starting point of his characterisation rather than its main objective. Spacey, although predictably cast as the verbally merciless Doc, is effortlessly authoritative and his appearance – the anonymising spectacles, the folds and pouches of the flesh on his pasty face – is magnetically unattractive. The film’s use of music is a clever idea and part of the great success that it’s enjoying: this is entirely a matter of personal taste but there wasn’t much of the eclectic soundtrack (supplied by T Rex, The Commodores, Barry White and Queen – among many others) that I enjoyed.
What I think of as Chazelle touches include both individual details – a revolving record on a turntable that segues into clothes whirling in a laundrette machine – and more expansive calculations. Baby’s foster father is (a) elderly, (b) African-American and (c) a deaf mute: (a) + (b) + (c) = vulnerably sympathetic x 3. Joseph’s disability also allows for twofold visual dynamism – signing and striking subtitles, in the form of balloons coming out of his and Baby’s mouths. There’s no denying that, even though the film’s attempts to be cool are as strenuous as they’re slippery, it’s been very widely received as such. Whatever Edgar Wright set out to do, he’s clearly achieved a desirable outcome critically and commercially. Baby Driver currently has a 94% fresh rating, from 255 reviews, on Rotten Tomatoes. It cost $34m to make; a month after opening in the US and the UK, it’s taken nearly $140m. Many contributors to the above statistics no doubt really do find the picture a blast (the spectacular editing is by Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos). I think there are also a fair few who are nervous about appearing uncool.
26 July 2017