Baby Driver, like the rest of director Edgar Wright’s oeuvre, is a collision of conflicting influences. Wearing the chassis of a high-octane heist flick atop the proven comedic engine that propelled his earlier efforts, Wright’s latest cruises through familiar territory—the kinetic camera captures a few searing action sequences and the quippy dialogue is delivered by an affectionately archetypical cast of characters—but it sputters when attempting to drive at anything deeper.
In many ways, it’s the director’s most straightforward and earnest film, wholly separate from his “Cornetto Trilogy” of genre sendups (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End), and unshackled from the expectations that come with an established franchise and fan base (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and his aborted attempt at Ant-Man). As such, Baby Driver is difficult to contextualize within Wright’s career; it’s a mixed bag that showcases his strengths as a filmmaker and exposes his weaknesses as a screenwriter.
Let’s cut to the chase: Wright casts up-and-comer Ansel Elgort as Baby (that’s B-A-B-Y, Baby), an aspiring, adolescent musician who derives his incredible skill behind the wheel from his naturally honed sense of rhythm. Music is more than a passion for the character—it’s a coping mechanism. Baby carries with him at all times a collection of iPods to drown out the ceaseless ringing in his ears developed after a childhood car crash. Years later as a wayward youth, he lifts the wrong ride and finds himself deeply indebted to Doc (Kevin Spacey), a criminal kingpin who presses him into service as a getaway driver—and, naturally, takes a fat slice of his cut.
Baby is on the cusp of repaying Doc in full when he falls for a diner waitress, Deborah (Lily James), who shares his dream of one day leaving town—and a troubled past—in the rearview mirror. The only thing standing between the two star-crossed lovers and the open road is one last big score… and if that sounds like a half-baked premise, that’s because it is. Wright constructs a stilted, cartoon reality informed by Hollywood cliché, which is fine as long as he’s delivering full-throttle thrills behind the lens. But as the film barrels into its protracted, trite, and morally atonal third act, the wheels nearly come off.
Wright sticks the landing, but he lands hard. Baby Driver wobbles across the finish line after an entertaining but uneven hour and 53 minutes, at which point the checkered flag arrives with a wave of relief rather than revelry. Granted I’m no mechanic, but as a practiced backseat driver, I’d say Wright’s trouble stems from the gearshift. His is a cheery, lighthearted take on the crime genre delivered with gee-shucks southern sincerity by the two romantic leads. Compelling these characters to commit acts of outlandish, R-rated violence burns the clutch.
Baby’s climactic U-turn feels especially inappropriate given what we know about the character; Wright purposely portrays his protagonist as a pacifist early on, then sadistically pushes him closer and closer to the point of no return. But what should feel like a moment of cathartic empowerment instead feels unearned and unbecoming. And Baby’s not alone—supporting characters perform similarly sloppy reversals to satisfy the mediocre script. Unimaginative casting only exacerbates the lazy writing, forcing talented performers to trot out old shtick: Spacey plays yet another reptilian villain, Jon Hamm encores his drunken playboy routine, and Jamie Foxx plays a cocky thug with a short fuse. It’s not groundbreaking stuff.
Nor does it need to be. Edgar Wright can do wonders with a simple story and a surplus of style—and he leaves his energy and enthusiasm on the screen. Those qualities shine in several standout set pieces, and separate Baby Driver from the soulless dreck it will chase at the box office this summer. The film wears an almost embarrassing amount of earnestness on its sleeve, and it’s only when the director betrays that foundational positivity that Baby Driver careens off course. It’s a testament to Wright’s skillful direction that he averts an outright wreck—and as he starts to pick up the pieces for his next feature, I’m confident he’ll find a lot worth saving. Let’s hope Baby is an organ donor.