‘Baby Driver’ is not where it needs to be

Images courtesy TriStar Pictures.

6/10 Baby Driver is a movie trying to cartwheel down a well-trodden path, telling a story you’ve heard a dozen times with undeniable style. Unfortunately, that cartwheel is, well, about a six out of 10.

The film follows Baby (Ansel Elgort) — get it? Because it’s about a driver named Baby, and the movie is titled Baby Driver! It’s a pun! Get it? — a getaway driver and ’50s pop music enthusiast who owes millions of dollars to Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby squares his debt and strikes up a relationship with local waitress Debbie (Lily James), but Doc won’t let him leave the increasingly violent gang. Baby eventually has to shoot his way out.

Basically every part of Baby Driver needs to be at least a little bit better. It’s is kind of boring, and it really shouldn’t be. Writer/director Edgar Wright was clearly going for kind of a Drive-meets-’50s-Guardians of the Galaxy vibe, and he misses the mark for several reasons.

The largest factor is its use of music, a main selling point for the film. Guardians of the Galaxy, the eminent jukebox musical, tailored entire scenes around its songs and ended up with a much more effective soundtrack, not because the songs are any better, but because the numbers are more effective and they’ve all got room to breathe. Baby Driver just drones on. The movie is an endless stream of pop songs, most of which have lyrics that hook up with the scene, but have such a similar sound and are kept so close together that it turns into a kind of ringing you just tune out.

That’s ironic, because the conceit revolves around the main character doing exactly that. Baby has tinnitus and uses music to drown out the constant ringing in his ears, and the movie’s soundtrack is supposed to be what he’s playing in his iPod in any given scene. It’s a wonderful idea that Baby Driver toys with but drops, to its great detriment. Baby’s earbuds get knocked out more and more often as it goes on, and it would have been so impactful to experience that first hand. It would darken a film that stays feather-light even in the face of increasing violence and lock the audience even tighter into Baby’s perspective. While you’re at it, make the gunfire more realistic and invasive as well. Make the audience exactly as comfortable or uncomfortable as Baby in any given scene.

Another bar for getting inside the main character’s head is his performer, Elgort. He’s responsible for holding the screen for the vast majority of Baby Driver, to the point that the movie frequently cuts away from action scenes so we can watch him dance in his car. This should be fine, but his choreography and lipsyncing are just a little off at all times, and his line delivery is never quite right. It’s a performance that was clearly rehearsed, but not to the point of perfection, which is a great definition for “bad performance.”

This was an opportunity to tell a story entirely through sound, creating something artistically fascinating all in the process of forcing the audience to viscerally sympathize with the main character’s disability. Baby Driver takes that opportunity and does not see it through.

Another big problem is characters — there kind of aren’t any. Baby is as simplistic a protagonist as you can get, and that’s usually OK. Debbie is a Sexy Lamp, and that’s really not OK, but it’s widely accepted. After that, things get weird.

Two of Doc’s thugs, Bats (Jamie Foxx) and Griff (Jon Bernthal), exist only to bully Baby for no apparent reason. Husband and wife Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González) fulfill the script’s gross PDA requirement, and then Buddy starts waxing poetic about love later in the movie as they try to legitimize it as a theme. Then there’s Doc, who goes from a menacing, uncaring crime lord to someone willing to die for his employees — willing to kill other employees for his employees — in the span of an elevator ride.

Thinly written and inconsistent characters mean a thin and inconsistent story. That would be fine for Baby Driver, which again is much more interested in style than substance, but since that style falls away so easily, the story becomes an issue.

One more big problem, and this was also a key selling point of the film — the action is awful.

I am so so so so God damn tired of action movies that don’t shoot good action. Somewhere over the past 20 years as spandex and CGI became the dominant visual draws, “let’s don’t and say we did” became an acceptable line of thought when it came to real stuntwork. There’s an entire cottage industry now around editing to make it look like stunts were performed where they weren’t — Every Frame a Painting has a wonderful breakdown of Jackie Chan’s career that addresses this, among other things — and in Baby Driver, it feels like avoiding actually doing stunts was the ethos of the entire production. This sort of editing is absolutely everywhere, and it’s infuriating.

If you’re not willing to do action, then don’t make an action movie. Just don’t do it. You wouldn’t make a comedy and cut from the setup straight to the laugh track. You wouldn’t make a musical and cut around the songs. Doing the same thing with action is just as ridiculous.

Not only is the action clearly fake, but often the scenes don’t make any geographical sense. It’ll cut straight from Baby shaking off his last pursuer to five behind him in the flying V.

Coming from one of the best commercial directors working right now, it’s a real shame to see a movie with all of these problems, because they’re mostly born of laziness. Wright’s previous work like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Hot Fuzz, you don’t see things like that, things that could have been made better with a little time and elbow grease. But Baby Driver is chalk full of shortcomings that this creative team is clearly better than. I wonder what happened.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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2 Responses to ‘Baby Driver’ is not where it needs to be

  1. Interesting to read one of the few negative reviews of this film. You do make some valid points (I loved the movie, however, so I can’t say I agree). And by the way, the movie did rely on real stunt work and practical effects. Check out many of the interviews with Wright and his stunt drivers. I thought the driving stunts in this one were incredible! Enjoyed hearing your point of view!

  2. This was the first really accurate review I’ve read. It’s not a bad film but I thought went downhill rapidly after the first 20 minutes which also had the best song in. The film has a weird Juno-like problem where this young guy only listens to music that a forty something director likes.

    John Hamm had an interesting character initially, but to my dismay this dissolved into him being a gurning nigh-indestructible villain.

    I did like the driving stunts though.

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