Edgar Wright is your film nerd friend’s favorite director, but you’re not fully on board. His films aren’t exactly inaccessible: you thought Scott Pilgrim was out there, but you really enjoyed it. And you loved the Cornetto Trilogy, though you still haven’t gotten around to watching The World’s End (it’s on your list). That’s the vortex that you step into (give or take) when you enter into the world of Baby Driver, Wright’s first film since he completed his trilogy and unceremoniously exited Ant-Man. Baby Driver is Wright’s first straight-up action film, and it’s his most quintessentially American film to date. He brings his usual cheekiness and panache, but he tamps it down a bit in service of this film. He also imbues his style with Tarantino’s superior genre-mashing and the Coen brother’s otherworldly use of their surroundings. Mix in a worthy collection of talent and the sense that they’re really having fun here and you get Wright’s best film to date and arguably the best of the year so far.
Much has been made in the roll-out of the film about Ansel Elgort, the de facto star and the titular character. Critiques of Elgort’s casting always missed the point; the movie isn’t about Baby, not really. The movie is about consequences and the horrifying realities of being a good person in a bad world. The real stars here are the scenery chewers: Jamie Foxx plays Bats, an aptly named criminal associate of Baby’s that brings a touch of chaos to everything he’s near. Lily James plays Debora, a doe-eyed, music loving diner waitress that falls for Baby and becomes complicit in his well-intentioned criminality. Jon Hamm gives a great turn as Buddy, the most dangerous of all of Baby’s colleagues. Also, on Elgort himself: he’s actually quite good as the lovably eccentric Baby, a coerced getaway driver with a predictably tragic backstory.
Quickly back to Tarantino’s genre-mashing: one of the things that makes his work so superior is his ability to go all-in on different styles in the same film. He can make a movie that’s wholly satire and wholly an action film, and he’s so good that you won’t even read that concoction as strange. That was something that was lacking in some of Wright’s earlier works. The World’s End, for example, is a fun, winking comedy about five friends on a bar crawl. Also, aliens invade and they save the world. The film is fun (though arguably Wright’s weakest) but something feels a little off, like an orchestra with a clarinet just slightly out of tune. The alien plot always felt halfhearted instead of being genuinely terrifying, and it coalesces in an underwhelming conclusion. Baby Driver is a big step forward in that sense: it’s an action film full stop. There’s nothing undercutting or taking the air out of the climactic parking garage sequence. But it’s still an Edgar Wright film, so it’s also a zany visual comedy. There’s a sequence near the beginning of the film where Baby walks the streets to the rhythm of the music on his iPod. It’s funny and genuinely clever but – mercifully – it only lasts a few minutes. In and of itself, it’s a nice scene (and certainly helps to calibrate the audience’s expectations), but it’s also a scene that hearkens back to Wright’s days of kitschy, self-aware film-making. The film is best served when it steers into the danger instead of ice-skating around it, and Wright’s gotten better at navigating that melding of worlds.
One of the best parts of the movie is the deeply integrated soundtrack. From Beck to The Beach Boys to Queen, Edgar Wright wants you to know that he loves and is excellent at choosing music. “Really, I would listen to music and I would visualize the action. So it’s like dreams and visualizations of action came before the idea for the character,” Wright said to Slash Film. And that visualization is straight from the script: in another interview, Wright says he was able to secure the rights for most of the songs he wrote in the original draft of the film. And maybe his use of music is teetering on pretentious and grandiose, but at least the songs feel ingrained in the story and the main character.
There are plenty of things to complain about and plenty of conversations to be had about the flaws in the filmmaking and the filmmaker, and those are excellent and worthy conversations to have. But the craft of the film is undeniable – we’re watching a supremely talented director at the top of his game, and that’s not something to take for granted. In a lot of ways, Wright’s film feels like the imagination of a kid come to life: it’s obsessed with having fun, it’s often immature and idealistic, and it occasionally drifts into the surreal. But Baby Driver is excellent, and a movie worth seeing.