Baby Driver rests heavily on Elgort’s shoulders, and the young actor has a hard time with it. He is maintaining an aloof, on-the-spectrum persona when he’s with Doc et al, something Elgort’s far better at conveying than the lighter mien he affects when he’s around his foster father Joe (CJ Jones) or courting diner waitress Debora (Lily James). Saying a good-looking young actor can sit still and look mysterious isn’t the most generous of compliments, but Elgort is good at exactly that. During the aloof scenes, the film means to interest the viewer in Baby while the lighter scenes are meant to endear, but in the latter, Elgort fails to do the job. His relationship with Debora forms what should be the rooting interest in Baby’s escape from crime, but there’s not a great deal of chemistry between the two, compounded by James’ annoying and perpetual tic of lip-biting. Elgort may have been put in a no-win scenario by Wright, who is plainly and deeply in love with the character. It’s believable that any person could be great at one thing, but it’s not enough that Baby is a stellar driver. He must also have perfect recall, be unflappable around murderers, retain a sense of courtesy and generosity despite years of armed robbery, and have squeezed in expert level parkour classes in his off time based on some late action beats. He’s a flawless character, an impossible task for Elgort to effectively sell.
The shining stars in Baby Driver’s firmament are in the supporting cast. Though there is now a squickiness to Spacey’s Doc having a young male companion that he coerced into service when the kid was an adolescent, Spacey is excellent, a convincing boss that can wield a heavy or a light touch and interchange effortlessly between either. Jamie Foxx plays a murderous and unhinged accomplice, readily believable as someone who could do anything at any moment. Jon Hamm and previously-unknown Eiza Gonzalez play a Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque pair of gunmen, with he as the true charmer in the cast and her as an erratic spark-plug given to siccing her beau on people who displease her. Hamm’s character is the most like Baby and a possible future version of him, capable of letting his guard down and becoming a human but holding a malevolence that Baby is incapable of. They each, particularly Hamm and Spacey, contain a duality between conformity with polite society and a malicious rejection of it that serves as a counterpoint to Baby, incapable of the latter.
As an action filmmaker, Wright has had more than his share of moments. The Cornetto trilogy all contain propulsive sequences, as does Scott Pilgrim. Baby Driver is more of the same, though a well-composed shootout and fist fight are more thrilling, personally, than a car chase. Even with that baked-in disadvantage, Wright makes the most of his surroundings. Set and filmed in Atlanta, a tough city to drive in, Wright conveys a sense of what it’s like, far more than Triple 9’s abortive attempts to make real use of the metropolis’ packed highways and clogged side streets. Appreciatively, there’s also an off-screen response to this rash of bank robberies, with steadily increasing security around targets.
The choreography of action sequences extends to the soundtrack. Another viewing is necessary to determine how finely calibrated the dense and eclectic soundtrack is with the onscreen events, but the initial impression is admiration for the effort and nothing more. There’s a clear attempt to almost make Baby Driver a musical, but the music-inflected cinematic scenes are supposed to engender a primal, unconscious reaction. Nothing rose to that level for this viewer. A list of favorite musical moments from the year in film would not yield anything from Baby Driver. It must also be mentioned that I’ve officially had enough of scenes where guns are being sold to people while the seller lovingly uses some metaphor to describe their killing power. Baby Driver uses meat, John Wick 2 used the language of luxury, and I just wish the characters would tongue the barrel and drop the subtext. It’s gross.
I’m of the opinion that Wright has yet to top his debut in Shaun of the Dead, and Baby Driver doesn’t disabuse me of that thinking. It’s his first film to uncritically worship his characters, and it’s his lightest touch on the meta throttle. Baby Driver plays it straight, making it good enough as summer fluff, but Wright’s pedigree is more inventive and dynamic. People probably dressed up as Baby for Halloween in droves, but I’d guess Wright is most at home cos-playing as some tertiary Star Wars character. He’s most effective writing for guys like that. C+