dir: Edgar Wright
People have, perversely, been waiting for the rest of the world to appreciate how keen and clever a director Edgar Wright truly is, graduating from ‘little’ but adored ‘cult’ type movies to something ‘worthy’ of his talents. Or at least you’d think that’s the case, based on the almost palpable relief critics and reviews expressed at how much they enjoyed Baby Driver and how glad they are that it was as successful as it’s been.
But really, do we want Edgar saddled with multiple hundred million dollar budgets and making pablum for Disney? I mean, I understand that Disney is going to own everything eventually, and what isn’t owned by Disney is going to be owned by Google, Facebook, Apple and Netflix, including our very souls, but isn’t this the unity – hive mind – singularity that science fiction has been warning us against since Invasion of the Body Snatchers?
I’d rather that Edgar, who sounds like a thoroughly wonderful film fanatic and all round wonderful human being on the podcast circuit, was kept to small budgets and relative obscurity, just so he can be kept making small but keen flicks that I adore the heck out of.
Well, I’ll be honest, I don’t love all his flicks with the same intensity. Sometimes, just like with Wes Anderson, who is the reigning king of fussiness and anal retentive composition, that fussiness, that overloading of scenes or soundtracks puts me off horribly. I don’t know if Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is as horrible as I suspect it is, or if it’s only because of Michael Cera being so annoying, or whether it’s Edgar’s fault, but whatever I feel about Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz or The World’s End, I definitely don’t feel the same for that film previously mentioned that I don’t want to mention again.
This, Baby Driver, seems like it’s a departure from all that, but it isn’t, really. It’s the pinnacle, the apotheosis of all the traits that Edgar (yes, I’m going to chat about him like we’re on a first-name basis) has displayed before. If anything, this flick’s success is only going to encourage him because he’s been so roundly rewarded for his two most distinctive traits: cinephilia and over-egging the pudding.
Still, as frustrating and alienating as it can feel sometimes, the mark of a master film maker is that he or she draws you in despite your objections, not because of them. The opening sequence of the film, and its aftermath, supplying the credits, or pretend credits (since they’re really song lyrics) probably worked even though I was watching it all telling myself it none of it should have worked.
Just like a meticulously planned bank heist getaway. Of course they shouldn’t work, for reasons of morality, decency, all that bullshit, but the tension created (will they get caught) balanced with other elements (should they get caught) balanced again with ‘daaaammmmmn they juuuuuuust got away with it with the skin of their meticulously choreographed teeth’, which is all very exciting and exhausting and you just want to have a lie down afterwards and maybe a smoke.
Thankfully the film slows down to the point where you can have a nap because nothing else that happens for the next hour and a half is going to be as enjoyable or exciting as that opening bit. Maybe it should have been a short film, I dunno.
So the film takes a deep breath, and then fills us in on the back story and complicated world of the main character, Baby (the unlikely named Ansel Elgort), his love interest Deborah (Lily James) and the other violent jerks, much to the detriment of the energy created by the beginning.
When he’s behind the wheel of a car, and when he has the right tune playing on his headphones, Baby is pretty much unstoppable. He is the getaway driver par excellence, the scourge of Atlanta’s banking system, but the film takes extreme pains to make sure that we don’t think Baby is a criminal. He may be a maestro of motor city madness, but he’s not doing it for money, for revenge, for reasons of social or economic anxiety. He’s doing it because Kevin Spacey made him do it.
Yeah, I know. We’re never going to be able to watch Kevin Spacey in anything comfortably anymore, but at least this came out before the other stuff came out, though truth be told was anyone really that surprised? I saw Spacey’s performance in Swimming With Sharks back in the 90s where he played a horrible Hollywood executive, before he started getting Oscars, and you kinda knew even back then what a monster he was.
If it comes out that Anthony Hopkins has actually been murdering and eating lesser actors for decades, sure, people are going to be shocked, but after watching Silence of the Lambs, can anyone really say they’re that surprised? Really?
I am of course being glib about something people shouldn’t joke about, which is sexual harassment and assault and horrible, horrible behaviour. The thing is, well, I can’t help but watch a flick like this now and wonder whether Kevin Spacey was an abusive prick to the people around him, especially to a young man like Ansel. Lily James and the other ladies on set were probably fine.
Spacey plays Doc, the criminal mastermind who masterminds a bunch of crimes and hires a rotating cast of criminals (the only common element on the crews is Baby) and gets them to carry out his schemes in implausible but bravura ways. He owns Baby with a mixture of parental concern and deeply creepy menace (gee, I wonder where that comes from), so most of the money that Doc performatively gives Baby at the end of a job mostly goes back to Doc.
Baby is a somewhat odd character. In a lot of ways he’s a differently-abled character (though not played by a differently-abled actor). He, like the actor, is pretty goofy compared to the monsters around him, but those monsters are not played for camp or laughs. I made several misconceptions about the characters and the characterisations here, which turned my head around, I must say, by the end. This isn’t a comedy. It’s an easy mistake to make, because most of Edgar’s flicks have been comedies. It takes a while to realise he’s playing in a different register here.
We’re used to Jon Hamm playing a certain kind of Jon Hamm character, being an old-time movie idol looking guy with all the grace and ease of a crate full of mannequins falling down a staircase; like the template that the original Ken doll was based on (not the contemporary one with a man-bun, oh hell no), and here he plays something sleazier and looser, a crim who looks like he’s down on his luck, and gods bless him the sleazier and more manic he acts, the better he acts.
And the other mistake one could make (that I made) is thinking Jaime Foxx’s character of Bats is played for comedic effect.
He is not. He most certainly is not. He made me afraid, probably more afraid that the clown from It, and that’s saying something.
Bats is a stone cold psychopath surrounded by various shades of thuggish crims, and if anything the only thing most of these crims have in common is a fear and mistrust of Baby, which is kept in check only via intervention by Doc or the seemingly big brotherish protection of Bud (Hamm). The thing is, though, Baby knows he’s alone, and that no matter whether he thinks he’s going to get out or not, or whether he’s going to be able to protect his adoptive deaf father (?) or his waitress girlfriend, but there’s only so much a guy can do from behind the wheel of a car or while doing parkour. These things can only solve a discrete number of problems. Beyond that…
It’s hard to say, even harder to wonder about as it’s happening, where the flick is going. You know that Baby wants to stop helping out crims, but the crims have trouble letting go. You know that he wants to leave Atlanta behind, and who could blame him, considering all the bank robberies and all the random people Bats keeps murdering for no good reason.
So the extended resolution to all his problems isn’t just to dangle us along unnecessarily: the stakes are raised in ways that are meant to make the ending feel more important than it might initially seem to be. Part of that involves having all of Baby’s avenues of escape progressively taken away from him until he has no choices left, and no way of getting out that most decent people would have recourse to if they didn’t have Kevin Spacey (the actor) or Bats (the character) on their arse.
And so to the ending. I don’t want to talk about the ending. The ending was always going to be disappointing, because the meticulousness with which the story is constructed, and the awfulness of the people around Baby was only ever really going to result in one ending, but the debate within a moviegoer’s head or between the heads of the audience is whether the ending is earned or whether it’s in keeping with the spirit of the movie and its inspirations (70s flicks like The Driver or Vanishing Point). I can say that the ending is NOT in line with any of that stuff, but that’s hardly a problem.
I would say I was more surprised by the ending than disappointed, but I can’t really say what I wanted anyway. This is not a balls-to-the-wall action flick, this is not a slightly more cerebral take on the Fast & Furious flicks. It’s not even a character study or a meditation on the darkness that hides behind the eyes of stockbrokers or people with tattoos on their necks. It is what it is: a meticulously constructed diorama and fidget spinner that pushes all buttons furiously but in the perfectly planned order that Edgar wanted.
I will say, apropos of nothing, that considering how chastised I felt when the humour ebbed away to be replaced with a cold feeling in my guts, that the flick managed to surprise me with a gag I didn’t see coming but which had me rolling with unexpected laughter. I won’t spoil it, because it’s such a dumb / brilliant gag, but it has to do with a random character talking about his neck tattoo, and how / why he changed it to improve his employment prospects. I genuinely laughed out loud, so much so that I wish I could invent an acronym for it that all the cool kids could use online.
I didn’t walk away from this flick with much other than amazement at the flick that Edgar put together, frustration that ‘things’ went the way Edgar wanted (and not the way I wanted), and awe that they (being director, actors and crew) all put together the flick they wanted so carefully, so precisely.
Is it all overdone? Yes, absolutely. Is it fussy, both in its music choices and editing to the point where it drags you away from the story and forces you to look at the construction against your will? Yes, yes it does.
Does any of that matter one whit in the end? No, it does not. The performances are all uniformly great, but they’re just figurines in a perfect clockwork universe that Edgar wanted, and though he is a violent god, he’s a forgiving one.
Baby Driver is definitely one of the films of the year, but seriously, that’s not saying that much. Just look at all the bad shit that happened this year, in and out of the theatre. It's a small consolation, honestly.
8 times I drive like that all the time but only in rental cars out of 10
“You rob to support a drug habit, I do drugs to support a robbery habit.” - It’s an important distinction that needed to be made – Baby Driver