Content warning for use of an ableist slur.
The pleasure of seeing “Baby Driver” is in how it crafts a unique space within a worn genre, in a way that only a hardcore movie buff like Edgar Wright, working with a game cast and crew, can. But the greatness lies in how it deals with the history of music, disability and the line between criminality and good. How? Well, the movie centers on Baby (played by Ansel Elgort), a young man whose life revolves around music, with the entire movie scored to the beat of his eclectic music collection stored in iPods and vinyl discs. He works as a skilled getaway driver for different groups of robbers, and wants to get out of the game when he meets the love of his life, Debora (played by Lily James), at a diner. Of course, the plot has other ideas, and those ideas are a thrill to behold.
What makes the movie particularly potent is how married it is to its soundtrack. One could say that it pulls an early Quentin Tarantino by pulling different songs from different eras to complement its scenes. Except here, everything hinges on the soundtrack in a literal way. Motions and sounds of the city sometimes go with the beat, other times complement it, like an extra layer. Sometimes the music underlines the main character’s feelings, other times it creates a frightening dissonance and heightens the tension. Even the dialogue and backgrounds are filled with references to cinema, music and pop culture, giving a little wiggle room for characterization and clever foreshadowing, leading into how the movie deals with disability in life-affirming ways, even in the mean-spirited circumstances.
The main character, Baby, has tinnitus, caused by a tragic accident when he was young. He plays music as a way to live with it, taking care of a deaf black man (played by CJ Jones) who is quite concerned for him. What’s great is that none of this is played for laughs, for we get to see these characters be… well, characters. They argue, joke around with each other and they are allowed to do this while having individual story arcs that complement and underline the audio/visual components of the movie. Even when the dialogue includes the word “retarded” being used as an invective against Baby, he does what is quite possibly the most creative and hilarious comeback against such an insult, which adds to the movie’s already amazing soundtrack and got tremendous laughs from the audience I saw it with.
Oh, but silly me, I’m neglecting the other characters! Kevin Spacey plays a cool and menacing boss of the operation that employs Baby, while being very guarded about his own personal life Because Reasons, and from this mutual-turned-coercive relationship Baby interacts with various folks. Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez are this movie’s answer to Bonnie & Clyde, Flea and Lanny Joon are a pair of grizzled bumbling criminals providing their own punchlines which underline their insecurities, Jamie Foxx is Bats, the impulsive asshole with a past that may or may not be bullshit, plus Jon Bernthal has a cameo appearance as the one who insults Baby but who has some clever dialogue foreshadowing the movie’s plot. The interesting thing is how the movie tests one’s ability to suss out who will turn on Baby, who will warm up to him and when it will happen, with glimpses of the, “Why” that lends some nuance. Without giving away too much, Baby’s way of relating to people in a profession where people die shows him as somewhat of a pragmatist, in that he doesn’t so much seek out violence as much as he defends himself from it, with Deborah eventually being sucked into all of this as well, graduating from damsel to an active participant in her own right.
If there is a downside to the stylization and grit, it is that the movie has a heavy bit of self-awareness, which, in a sloppier movie, can make the whole enterprise ooze with a cowardly cynicism that says, “Look at me, I’m doing the same groan-inducing bullshit that you see in actual bad art, which I guess qualifies as irony or something!” It thankfully finds a way to make even its self-awareness and lampshading fun, yet the way the movie inundates itself within various slices of Americana and music can leave one wanting more. There is a moment where the movie uses the track, “Harlem Shuffle”, which would famously be sampled by House of Pain, and the movie flirts with the interaction between black culture and white culture in the United States through said music. To say nothing of the extended one-shot of Baby traversing from his HQ to a coffee shop and back which displays plenty of the movie’s setting, with its culture, traffic, social inequality and demographics. Alas, it is only just a flirtation. Sure Bats cracks jokes about famous white artists like Barbara Streisand with the other crooks, while the movie’s tense third act features two white guys with metal grills blasting rap music from within a red Dodge Charger, but these moments and the sociological/historical insight that would come from them come and go, a victim of the movie being perhaps a tad too dedicated to fast pacing and narrative efficiency.
Then again, if the most one can complain about in a movie like this is that you wish you could revel in its setting for a little bit longer and soak in the subtext/context, that is usually the sign that you have a pretty damn excellent movie. To use a tired metaphor and then mangle it with over-elaboration, this movie goes like a blast from a shotgun barrel, powered by an impressive Rube Goldberg machine behind the gun which gives you plenty to marvel at and tap your toes to. It’s colorful, earnest, loud and at times beautiful, and however derivative it may seem, this is one cinematic/musical exercise that won’t make you despise the very concept of film school or nostalgia.
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