This review was written for and appears on Punch Drunk Movies. Check out the site when you have a chance.
Summer officially began only a few days ago, but the summer movie season has been dragging on for months now, accosting us with tired sequels to tired franchises (“Cars 3,” and part fives of both “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Transformers”). “Baby Driver” should have been a breath of fresh air, an antidote to franchise fatigue. It’s a stand-alone movie, made with adults in mind, and directed by a talented, iconoclastic director (Edgar Wright). There’s only one problem: it’s just okay.
Baby (Ansel Elgort…was “Cade Yaeger” taken?) is a getaway driver and he’s darn good at it. Left with permanent tinnitus from a childhood accident, he drowns out the ringing in his ears with a constant barrage of music (I actually have tinnitus; music does not always drown it out. But I digress…) that helps him focus his driving skills. He’s working off a debt to Doc (Kevin Spacey), a criminal mastermind. Then, Baby meets Debora (Lily James), a waitress at his favorite diner. The two fall in love and want to start a life together. But first, he has to extricate himself from Doc and his cadre of bank robbers (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx).
“Baby Driver” has a few interesting tricks up its sleeve. With the main character so connected to music, Wright takes the opportunity to transform the film into a bit of a musical. Gunfights, for example, have their sound effects edited in rhythm to the music on the soundtrack. And while characters never break out into song, Baby does break out into dance, several times (a choreographer, Ryan Heffington, is even listed in the opening credits). These are intricately designed dances with him Fred Astaire-ing around ladders, lamp posts, and passing pedestrians. (A neat and surreal touch: the opening song’s lyrics appear written out, hidden in plain sight, as graffiti on walls, on posted flyers, etc.).
Neat as they are, they’re still just tricks and they don’t cover the film’s flaws. The movie is populated with types instead of characters, and that’s fine for an irreverent, action picture like this one. But they still have to be interesting. Sadly, they’re not. Baby is a blank, Debora is just the damsel in distress, and Doc is, well, Kevin Spacey. They’re just…there. And the dialogue that should elevate these types isn’t terribly memorable either.
The car chases are fine but also far from memorable. Basically, the best one is at the very beginning, with some wild evasions and that staple of the car chase: driving against traffic on a highway. After that, they become less and less compelling.
And of all things, the music doesn’t even stand out. That’s really disappointing for a movie that puts so much emphasis on its musical component. Usually, it just gets lost in a cacophonous sound-mix or doesn’t really fit the material. A shoot-out is set to “Tequila” by The Champs, for instance, and it’s more irreverent than exciting. I’m tired of forced irreverence.
I don’t know. Word of mouth for “Baby Driver” has been stellar. Three friends who were at my screening, and whose opinions I respect, liked the movie also. Maybe I was expecting just a little too much, especially as an Edgar Wright fan. But just about everything about the movie is middle of the road, neither hot nor cold. The biggest moment of excitement at the screening was when one of a group of chatty audience members in front of me was finally ejected for using a cell phone. After that, I just left the theater with a shrug.