Perhaps the best thing about Edgar Wright as a filmmaker is that he really uses the medium. Unlike, say, Judd Apatow, who’s enamored by the long winded riffing between two experienced comedians (interactions that are generally captured in boring medium and close up shots) Wright shrewdly marries editing, action choreography, sound and cinematography together to create zany, genre blending experiences.* Yes, his hyper, always-moving style can sometimes feel relentless and wear thin (particularly during the third act) but for the most part they make for a fun time at the movies. Wright’s latest film, “Baby Driver” is no exception.
“Baby Driver” is exuberant, fast paced and tightly scripted. There’s not much in the way of fat—no scene goes on longer than it needs to. The picture isn’t just a collection of jokes and improve-y back and forths poorly glued together to resemble a feature length film. Wright firmly believes in narrative and structure to keep things organized and the action moving. Story and character come first, while the humor flows effortlessly out of them. “Baby Driver” keeps to a meticulous and playful comedic rhythm, sort of like a classic screwball comedy with more music, heavier cutting and a lot more action.
Wright also likes working within established genres. “Baby Driver” embraces a well-worn sub genre of the crime film—an expert criminal trying to get out that dangerous life but that life wont let him leave. In this case, that expert criminal is a young (talented) getaway driver known as “Baby” (Ansel Elgort). A good kid who mostly means well, he works for the master criminal Doc, (Kevin Spacey) doing jobs to pay off a debt he acquired years ago. Once he finishes paying off said debt, Baby wants to leave, especially after meeting diner waitress Debra (Lily James) but this proves to be more difficult than he thought.
“Baby Driver” is Wright’s hyper screwball take on films like “Thief” and “Drive.” It’s kinetic and cartoon-y, with a palpable undercurrent of violence and danger. The criminals that Baby brushes up against, including Bats (Jamie Foxx) and Buddy (Jon Hamm) are cold-blooded and sadistic.
The most inventive thing about “Baby Driver” is the way it uses music and sound. Baby’s most prominent characteristic is that he’s always listening to music on his IPod, to drown out the constant ringing in his ears caused by a childhood accident. As a result, Baby structures his entire life around the music he’s listening to, including his getaway driving. In one scene, just as the crew he’s working with is about to pull off a bank-robbing job, Baby makes them wait temporarily so he can sync it up with a song. Music is his way of dealing with his personal trauma as well as a method for maintaining order among disorder. He makes this dangerous life just a little more tolerable.
Almost every scene is scored with some pop or rock song, which in turn informs everything else in the frame. The editing, the blocking, the choreography and all the individual Foley sounds are synched to whichever song Baby decides to play, making for vigorous, carefully constructed symphonies of action and sound. In another scene, an entire gunfight is synched to the song “Tequila.” (Wright is one of the few directors who can make a gunfight or a car chase funny). In this regard, “Baby Driver” is Wright’s manic, clever take on the musical.
Admittedly, “Baby Driver” lacks the emotional and character depth of Wright’s best films. Outside of Baby, the other characters are thinly developed and his relationships, with Doc, Debora, or his deaf guardian Joseph (CJ Jones) aren’t as poignant or fleshed out as the bromantic bonds in films like “Hot Fuzz and “Shaun of the Dead.” Wright’s frequent collaborators Nick Frost and Simon Pegg are absent from this outing, both in front of and behind the camera, which can be felt.
Additionally, the picture goes off the rails during the last act; the action begins to get a little repetitive and tedious while the narrative loses focus. It takes a peculiar outlaw-lovers-on-the-run turn involving Baby and Debora that doesn’t quite work. The way Debora gets thrown into the central criminal action is too far fetched. In fact the romantic angle overall, while cute, feels a bit shallow and forced.
Even so, “Baby Driver” is a lot of fun and continually demonstrates just how great a comedic (and action) filmmaker Wright is. Lesser Wright is still worth experiencing on a big screen.
Here is an excellent video essay the goes into further depth about Wright’s filmmaking and the way he creates humor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FOzD4Sfgag
For the record, I don’t hate the Apatow style of filmmaking but I vastly prefer Wright’s method.