Baby Driver (2017)

Directed by Edgar Wright

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Baby Driver is a lot of fun, and that’s about all there is to say.  I love Edgar Wright’s style, particularly his sense of visual comedy, and he has a way of making you love the heroes of his movies.  In this case, Baby (Ansel Elgort) is immensely likable, first because of his boyish, restless charm and second because of what he’s up against.   I think there was a similar dynamic that led us to rooting for Simon Pegg’s hero in Shaun of the Dead and Michael Cera in Scott Pilgrim.  In the case of Wright’s other two movies (not counting his first, made long before the others), we root for the hero more because of what they’re up against, in Hot Fuzz and The World’s End.  Those latter two films, both led by Simon Pegg, feature a protagonist who is not immediately likable.  One is a stone-faced cop and the other is a manipulative alcoholic, but they both end up battling forces way beyond their control: a small town covering up murders and aliens.

In Baby Driver, we get a lot thrown our way to make us like the hero.  This movie isn’t trying to do anything too complex.  It’s a crime thriller, a comedy as well, and for it to work, you’re meant to actively root for the hero and nothing more.  There is some nuance to Baby’s character, but for the most part he’s just a handsome Hollywood hero.  We like him because 1) He’s innocent compared to the tattoo’d criminals who share his car, 2) he’s playful, bouncing around to the music in his ears in a situation that you would expect to be treated with much more gravity, 3) he doesn’t participate in crime by choice, 4) at home he takes care of a deaf old man who turns out to be his foster father because 5) he lost both his parents in a car crash as a kid, and he listens to music to drown out the noise.

He’s vulnerable, damaged yet still positive, and he’s innocent.  Even as he narrowly avoids collisions and the cops while he speeds away from the scene of a crime, Baby only has his eyes set on a girl, Debora (Lily James) who catches his attention.  He’s basically a teenager, and he just happens to be in a world he’s not quite suited for.  This gives us the hook (he’s a getaway driver), but also makes sure we understand that he hasn’t chosen this path.  Instead it chose him, in the form of Kevin Spacey’s Doc, a man who organizes these heists and threatened to ruin Baby unless he worked for him.  Kevin Spacey plays a character not too far from the one he plays in House of Cards, making us understand and feel the pressure Baby faces.

In the first act there is a lot of time spent showing Baby’s home life and his love of music as well as flashbacks of him remembering his mother and the crash that killed her.  In some ways this might seem a little forced, a step too far to ensure that we root for his character, and in some ways it is.  Edgar Wright lathered on the empathy like too much peanut butter on a bagel.  But Baby is just so damn likeable that it didn’t matter.  And I suppose those scenes worked, it just felt as if the repeated flashbacks were redundant.

This movie is a lot of fun to watch, and I’m inclined to go see it again, but it did waver a little in the third act.  What’s most interesting about the story structure is that, traditionally there is the “lock in” moment to end act 1, putting the hero on a journey that reaches a climax at the end of act 2.  But in Baby Driver, act 1 ends, as far as I can tell, when Baby completes his second assignment of the movie, which happens to be his last debt owed to Doc.  The first heist goes well, mostly because it has to since this is the set up so we know Baby’s world and what he does.  We learn a lot by watching him succeed, namely how skilled he is as a driver as well as his methods and the doubt that the criminals he drives have towards him.  In this case, this criminal is played by Jon Bernthal, and later it will be a new character, Bats, played by Jamie Foxx.

After this opening scene, a thrilling and entertaining one, we learn about Baby’s debt to Doc, his home life, and his attraction to Debora.  When he completes his second assignment, in which things go wrong just enough to weigh on Baby’s conscience, we are pushed into act 2.  Yet at this time, Baby thinks he’s done with this job.  He no longer owes Doc anything, and now he’s free to pursue the life he wants to pursue, specifically with Debora.  The early portion of act focuses on Baby and Debora growing closer together as well as Baby’s new, temporary job as a pizza driver.  It’s not until around the midpoint that Doc tells Baby, predictably, that he can’t get out of the game so easily.

This structure reminded me of Win It All, a Joe Swanberg film from only a couple months ago.  That’s a story about a gambler who is tasked with holding onto a friend’s mysterious bag while the friend goes to jail, and when the gambler finds thousands of dollars in the bag, he can’t help himself, he loses the money gambling, and then he must win it all back.  Based on that premise, you would expect the start of act 2 to be after the gambler discovers how much money he’s holding onto, then we would see him have some fun and success, and then around the midpoint he starts to lose everything and digs himself a hole he must climb out of.  Except that this all happens in act 1, for the most part, and act 2 focuses on the gambler’s effort to put his life back together.  He meets a nice girl, and he agrees to work for his brother’s company, putting the pieces back together.  Then, of course, he learns that his friend is being released from prison early, and this forces him to have to go back into gambling to save himself.

Instead of a clear progression and escalation of conflict, in other words, there seems to be a turn, yet a turn that is not entirely unforeseen.  In Baby Driver, you might think that we start with Baby before he’s a getaway driver, and act 2 starts with him being locked into working for Doc.  But instead, he’s ‘locked in’ from the start.  Once we learn that he owes Doc a debt, we know that, even when that debt is paid, Doc is unlikely to let him go so easily.  And even if you didn’t realize Doc was going to rope him back in, the moment he does, which might seem like the “lock in,” doesn’t occur until closer to the midpoint of the film.

So the focus of early in act 2, usually the “fun and games” portion of the script which delivers most of what is promised in a movie’s logline, is instead on Baby’s attempts to move on from his role which defines the movie.  For this section of the film he’s not a getaway driver, just a kid falling in love.

None of this is good or bad, just interesting to me.  I think it works because the scenes between Baby and Debora are so alive.  A lot of this likely has to do with the music and the editing (hell, the whole movie is a beautiful blend of sound and image), but watching these two onscreen felt very engaging, like I felt with Gosling and Stone in La La Land.  I suppose that feeling, whether or not you agree or even liked La La Land, was the larger than life image of these two characters in an otherwise underwhelming world.  The music, very important in both films, makes the scene feel more magical and cinematic, even if they’re only in a laundromat (Baby Driver) or walking down some alley in La La Land.  Both films take a setting that you could walk through and elevate it into something else, something playful and joyful and thrilling at the same time.

When Doc reenters the picture, all the focus is on one last job.  Baby makes his plan to escape, but he’s stuck with a group of criminals that include Bats, Buddy (Jon Hamm), and Darling (Eliza Gonzalez), the latter two of whom are married.  The movie sets up a dynamic between the characters in which Bats is mostly unpredictable, particularly distrusting of Baby, and Darling asks Buddy to kill Bats because he looked at her funny.  So we know shit is about to go down.

Still, the series of events that conspire to keep Baby with this crew and thus unable to flee and hit the road with Debora, as he promises her, feel a little forced.  First, Doc tells the crew that they must sleep at their little hideout that night rather than go home, at which point Baby would have fled the town with Debora.  Then Baby tries to sneak out only to be caught, somewhat improbably, by Buddy and Bats.  And this all occurs after a shootout I neglected to mention and a subsequent trip to the very diner where Debora happens to work.  In that scene, they have just fled from the scene of an arms deal that left, presumably, five or so people dead, and Bats decides he’s hungry, so he tells Baby to pull up to the next diner.  First of all, what are the odds that they just happen to pass that diner, and second, that Bats would decide he’s hungry right then and there, and why aren’t they in more of a hurry to get away from a crime which they left in exploded ruins?  The story seems to ignore the possibility that they could be caught.  And this adds to the feeling of powerlessness on the part of the cops who become less and less of an opposition, even though they are the most clear conflict presented to Baby’s role as a getaway driver.

The scene at the diner is well-made and tense, with every word carrying a degree of weight to it, since we know what Bats is capable of and what Buddy is considering doing.  Then, of course, Baby is forced to pretend like he doesn’t know Debora in order to protect her.

The scene works dramatically, but it feels unnecessary in terms of the narrative.  First of all, they only drink cokes while they’re there (it’s Atlanta, after all), so they never eat.  And that’s nitpicking, but the point of the scene is so that both Bats and Buddy know that Baby has a girlfriend, because you know that’s going to come back in act 3 since the damsel must at some point be in distress.  And I think that’s about the only role of the scene.  There are some heated words exchanged between Buddy and Bats, but that never pays off in terms of how they eventually meet their demise.

When they carry out the robbery of a post office the next morning, the getaway immediately goes wrong.  Baby refuses to drive, and when Bats points a gun at him, Baby zooms forward into the back of a truck with a pipe sticking out which impales and kills Bats.  It’s the best death of the movie, combining shock value with the offing of a very antagonistic character.  I expected more shocking, creative deaths like this based on Wright’s past movies, in particular Hot Fuzz in which every death feels like something as orchestrated as any of the deaths in the Final Destination franchise.

In the ensuing foot chase and shootout with the police, Baby gets away, again somewhat improbably only because of how stretched out this sequence was, Darling is killed, and even more improbably, Buddy keeps getting away.

This is, again, where the police prevent little opposition.  Buddy seems to be backed into a corner on multiple occasions only to constantly get away.  Eventually Baby goes to the diner to get Debora so they can hit the road, but you know someone’s going to be there waiting.  I expected it to be Doc, who I figured would be the ultimate antagonist, after all he is the reason Baby was ‘locked in’ to this adventure, but instead it’s Buddy.

And again, Buddy’s and Baby’s showdown felt a little redundant.  When Buddy shows up, his presence is implausible, but considering Baby’s own escape was unlikely, I didn’t mind Buddy having avoided the police… if this were the last time.

In this particular clash, Baby shoots Buddy, and Buddy shoots a cop.  Baby and Debora escape, but rather than hit the road, they go to the hideout where Doc is waiting, unhappily.  This, finally, would seem to be the “final boss” moment, but instead, Doc lays down his life to protect Baby when Buddy again shows up, this time in a cop car.  He’s like the Terminator or something.

Doc dies, and Baby and Buddy have a final, final fight, this time in cars.  Considering Baby is supposed to be the skilled driver and Buddy is not, this fight should be one-sided, but it’s not.  It’s stretched out a little too long, and when Buddy is thought to be dead… he’s not, and he fires two shots close enough to Baby’s head to make him mostly deaf, ‘taking away what he holds most dear,’ before Buddy finally dies.

Okay, so a lot happens in act 3, and most of it is entertaining, but it starts to get more and more ridiculous, and each time Buddy shows up yet again, the cops look even more and more helpless, even though they are meant to be the most antagonistic force towards Baby’s goals at the start of the film.  When Baby speeds away from the cops in act 1, it’s thrilling partially because of the presumed degree of difficulty in this task.  But after the multiple escapes in act 3, the cops feel more like Grand Theft Auto cops in which you just have to hide around the corner, and you’re good to go.  In particular, how does the cop who visits the diner not recognize Buddy, the man with the weird haircut who has shot up a bunch of cops that very afternoon?

The story let some stuff go so that we could get the final clash between Baby and Buddy, but even that felt underwhelming because Buddy never felt as strong of a villain as Doc did.  To me, the movie should have ended with a showdown between Baby and Doc, the hero and the villain who forced him into this life.  But I imagine that, because Doc never participated actively in these heists, such a showdown might be underwhelming.  So maybe Wright determined he wanted to have a final showdown in two cars, really paying off the movie’s premise, since Baby’s car is akin to Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit.  Thus he decided that Doc couldn’t realistically put up a comparable fight in a car, so the duty fell to Buddy.

As I mentioned, there is some La La Land in the scenes between Baby and Debora, and there is definitely some Drive in the heist scenes.  That film, another Gosling vehicle, featured a similarly blond and silent driver who would otherwise seem to have nothing to do with the criminals he drives.  There was more nuance to Gosling’s silent, tortured character, and I would have loved to see more of that in Baby, particularly in the final act.

But maybe that’s not what Wright was going for.  His movies are more about clear heroes versus clear villains, and he does a great job of setting up the pieces, usually without too much stale exposition, to then follow with the popcorn-worthy final clashes in act 3, particularly in Hot Fuzz.

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