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Two reviews of Edgar Wright’s heist caper movie Baby Driver

Edgar Wright’s high octane Baby Driver is one of the most anticipated films of the year. Daily Review’s Luke Buckmaster describes it as a “genuine original” in which “the audience is taken for a ride aurally as much as visually” while Gemma Pecorini Goodall writes that its hyper-masculinity aside, Baby Driver proves that films in a genre she generally stays clear of “can provide an intellectually stimulating view on the world”. The film is released nationally on July 13.

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GEMMA PECORINI GOODALL on BABY DRIVER

Every now and then a film comes out of nowhere and dominates social and mainstream media. Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is just one of those films, that went from being a blip on people’s radar to being one of the most critically and commercially popular films of 2017 so far.

Baby Driver follows Baby (Ansel Elgort), a getaway driver who finds himself paying off a debt to one of Atlanta’s major crime bosses. The cast is made up of incredibly familiar faces from both the independent and commercial film scenes. Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm and Kevin Spacey are wonderfully cast alongside Elgort as the criminal underbelly of Baby’s desire to make a life for himself independent from criminality. Lily James, who dons a pretty convincing American accent as love interest Debora, falls perfectly into the manic-pixie-dream-girl clichè (but more on that later).

Baby Driver is by far the most contradictory film I’ve ever seen and left me conflicted about my feelings of the film by the time I left the cinema. Much noise has been made about the film’s soundtrack and Wright possesses a sort of musicality that only choreographers have, perfectly mickey-mousing actions through the composite score that plays as Baby’s inner monologue throughout the film.

But other than the soundtrack, most elements of Baby Driver don’t add up. The cinematography, which makes use of fantastic steadicam shots, is comedic in lighting and color palette but perfectly captures the action genre in its composition. Wright’s screenplay also fluctuates throughout the narrative, providing truly laugh out loud moments which are followed only by light chuckles and the rare chortle. Elgort’s role, although poignant and well performed, also seems to be slightly miscast. As the film progressed and Baby’s mannerisms became more accentuated, I thought that the role may have been better fitted for someone less classically-handsome and charismatic; who is more cemented into the awkward persona that Baby seems to represent. I kept seeing a young Jesse Eisenberg in Elgort’s shoes, someone who could perfectly teeter the line between genius and unstable. It may just be that due to his previous roles in young-adult hits like The Fault in Our Stars and Divergent, Elgort is already type-cast in my brain but I couldn’t help but think that with a different actor, the film’s tone would have been more constant.

It’s this shifting narrative tone that makes Baby Driver one of the most effective anxiety-inducing films out there. By the end of the film, the events and characters’ decisions lean towards surrealism, contradicting everything we thought we knew about them. Wright manages to somehow write and direct a character-driven film with minimal character development, slowly peeling back each character’s layers until we realise those facets were always there just under the surface.

Baby Driver also falls victim to a mountain of clichés and tropes within the action genre. James perfectly pulls off the guise of the manic-pixie-dream-girl, blindly following Baby’s every whim without ever voicing an opinion or desire of her own. Foxx also manages to be boxed into the ‘Black thug’ stereotype despite being in a cast of almost entirely criminal characters. The film also does the action genre thing of providing elongated, almost masturbatory, depictions of hyper-masculinity with a plethora of engine revving, gun firing and explosions with the usual sprinkling of misogyny.

On paper, Baby Driver looks like a film I wouldn’t like, but somehow it forgives itself. Whether Wright purposefully created an almost satirical commentary on the action genre and heightened masculinity or, in this case, too many wrongs do make a right, is unclear, but Baby Driver left me confused, excited and entertained proving that even films in this genre I generally stay clear of, can provide an intellectually stimulating view on the world. One thing’s for sure though: Baby Driver exhibits more iPods in its 113 minutes than the entire last decade of films combined.

LUKE BUCKMASTER on BABY DRIVER

British writer/director Edgar Wright ranks among the most innovative artists working in screen comedy today, up there with the Plasticine-contorting folk from Aardman and the whizkids behind those fabulous Old Spice commercials. His latest film, Baby Driver, is the sort of rarity that grumps such as myself often complain Hollywood doesn’t make any more. Which is to say: a genuine original.

The trailers and key art emphasise its po-faced celebs, guns and wham-bam-slam car chases, replete with screeches and clangs and Jon Hamm brandishing a semi-automatic rifle half his body height. But the real appeal of Wright’s fifth feature (following Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and The World’s End) is impossible to crystallise in punchy sizzle reels or one sheets, forged at an intersection of character idiosyncrasy and atmospheric chutzpah.

The protagonist, Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a genius on-the-spectrum getaway driver who will only put foot to the floor if he’s listening to appropriate audio accompaniment, played through his headphones and iPod. Several years ago Wright, tapping his toes along to Bellbottoms by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, envisioned the song making a kick arse track for a getaway scene; it’s the tune for the film’s opening robbery and high speed escape.

The audience is taken for a ride aurally as much as visually. As Baby listens to funky tracks and blots out the rest of the world, focusing only on the road, so do we, Wright giving his kinetic hell-for-leather action scenes the unlikely appeal of a quasi-musical. The film is also, less interestingly, a no-among-among-thieves story about a decent kid embroiled in a life of crime, from which he will invariably attempt to break free.

Baby’s genius as a calm-under-fire wheelman is recognised and usurped by heist organiser Doc (Kevin Spacey). Doc is less a criminal mastermind than a means to introduce and contextualise the next sting, and the one after that, speaking in front of blackboards with chalk-drawn escape routes on it – like a character from Grand Theft Auto. Baby is brains to the brawn of his leery low-life colleagues, such as Bats (Jamie Foxx) who determines the bumptious upstart as “either hard as nails or scared as shit.”

A love interest emerges in diner waitress Debora (Lily James). As does the fallacy – grasped by viewers much sooner than Baby – than Doc will let him do One Last Job before shaking hands and parting ways. Baby’s deaf, wheelchair-constrained foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) has “future victim” written all over him. He also explains why the music-loving leadfoot can read lips and communicate through sign language.

All Wright’s films are visual pleasures. Fleeting moments in Baby Driver teasingly suggest the director might be taking his quasi-musical aspirations seriously, in a classic Hollywood musical sense, including a sweet moment between Baby and Deborah in a laundromat, where perfectly arranged coloured sheets (ordered red blue yellow, red blue yellow) tumble in the machines around them. There’s also a lovely long take depicting Baby gracefully interacting with things on the street, strutting in elegant, jazz-accompanied gait, and mime-playing a trumpet behind glass in a department store.

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The discipline, economy and ingenuity in Wright’s cinematic rhythm is a large part of what makes his films such pleasures to watch (and so very re-watchable). A short moment in his 2007 buddy cop homage Hot Fuzz highlights the filmmaker’s zingy, time-condensing style. We see Simon Pegg’s police officer character lying awake at night on his bed. In the next shot, it is daylight and his pajamas are folded neatly.

Wright hasn’t explicitly told us the character has woken up, got dressed and gone to work. Like any director who, say, shoots an actor at the bottom of a flight of stairs then cuts to that same person at the top, he is entrusting our minds to fill in the gaps. It sounds like a simple thing, but in Wright’s hands much can transpire in the distance between images: entire conversations, perhaps, or entire days, or a series of events other filmmakers would deem relevant to be shown.

We see this in play in Baby Driver. At one point Joseph suggests Baby take up a decent honest job, such as delivering pizza. Cut: we see Baby enter the local pizza place in plain clothes then exit it, in the same shot, in uniform. We know he got the job; we don’t need to see his interaction with the boss. Wright has inferred that using an inventive, unbroken shot.

It’s hard to tell if working with him would be an editor’s dream or worst nightmare. At the peak of his kinetic playfulness, Wright’s embellishments are comparable to flourishes from the greats – the famous jump cuts of Jean-Luc Godard, for instance. His inclination towards pop culture hyperawareness and genre-ensconced narratives (zombies in Shaun of the Dead, aliens in The World’s End, etcetera) are perhaps the reason this playfulness tends to wane as his running times progress.

And so it is with Baby Driver. The end is a homicidal demolition derby, with as many meaningless rams and bumps as a round of dodgem cars. This is an issue, as is Debora’s lack of agency and weirdly complicit behaviour; the film would have been better if she had spunk and sass. Still, it’s smart, inventive and hugely entertaining from go to whoa: a tune-pumping, vinyl-spinning, bitumen-tearing, possessed jukebox of an action movie. I’m looking forward to watching it – and listening to it – again.

(Luke Buckmaster’s review was first published on Daily Review on July 7)

One response to “Two reviews of Edgar Wright’s heist caper movie Baby Driver

  1. Picking a nit.
    “Wright has inferred that using an inventive, unbroken shot.”
    Wright has implied that.
    We infer.

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