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And it’s a half past four and I’m shiftin’ gear

by Thom Yee

baby-driver-one

Baby Driver images courtesy of TriStar Pictures

So I drive stick.  I know it’s not a big deal and that it doesn’t really prove anything about me as a person, I know that paddle shifters are actually faster at shifting, and I know that, year over year, there are only going to be fewer cars with manual transmissions as an option, but still, there’s something about driving a stick that separates people like me from… well, from most of you.  Something important.  Call it a greater connection between man (or woman) and machine, call it the need for precision driving, call it a weird, overblown fixation that only the kinds of people you’d rather avoid in conversations would have, but there is a difference between driving a car and choosing when to shift and driving a car that automatically shifts for you (often at questionable times that never let you feel your car’s real power).  It’s not quite the difference between men and boys that motor (or “petrol”) heads would have you believe, but it is a point of distinction.  And if we’re being totally honest?  I’m usually just a little bit more attracted to a girl who drives stick.

I also know, though, that there are a lot of you out there who probably have no idea what I’m talking about [maybe you never really know what I’m talking about].  A lot of you might not even own a car.  Maybe the weirdest thing for me about being a millennial (albeit more of an ‘80s-born adult rather than a ‘90s-born kid) is how many people I personally know who not only don’t have their own car but don’t even have a license to drive and have no desire to get either of those things anytime soon.  There’s no shame in that, that’s not what we’re about here at GOO Reviews (shame), it’s just that, along with non-craft beer, big screen TVs, and, to some extent, the concept of ownership itself, cars don’t seem to be high on the priority lists of today’s young adults.  But weird things?  Quirky things?  Things that are different (often for the sake of being different), things that strike you with their lack of convention and just how much they don’t seem like everything else?  Millennials eat that sh*t up, and if that sounds like you, I think that’s all the reason you need to see Baby Driver.

But it’s also a really good car chase movie.

What’s it about?

Baby (that’s B-A-B-Y, “Baby”, played by Ansel Elgort [and that’s A-N-S-E-L, “Ansel”]) is a young getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey), a criminal kingpin/mastermind-type, who uses the music from his iPod both to match the rhythm he needs to drive fast and to drown out the constant ringing in his ears, the result of a childhood car accident.  But he doesn’t like it (being a criminal that is), and now that he’s finally paid up his debts to Doc, he wants nothing more than to leave this increasingly violent and deadly world behind and to take off, headed anywhere west, with his girlfriend, Debora (Lily James).  But quitting isn’t that simple.

So not this…

or this…

… rather a pretty fun-looking movie with some big-name actors that seems just weird enough that you probably shouldn’t ignore it.  There was a time that you only needed one of those things — fun, big actors, or fast-paced quirkiness —for a movie to get attention, but today it’s actually kind of a minor miracle that a movie like Baby Driver, more of an indie piece and one of the darlings of the SXSW 2017 back in March, has gotten as wide a release as it has, here and now in the age of blockbuster, expanded-universe franchises.

This is actually our fourth review of an Edgar Wright movie after our “Cornetto Trilogy” binge of 2013 that covered Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and the then-new The World’s End, and if there’s one thing each of those movies and Baby Driver have in common (other than their director and their fast-paced, fun quirkiness) it’s that they’re all the types of movies that have or will soon gain rabid, cult-like followings among film nerds.  They’re all fun, they’re all fast, they’re all clever and smartly shot and remarkably unique while playing in the types of spaces we all love in classic cinema.  Unlike the Cornetto Trilogy films, however, right now it looks like Baby Driver might also have a real shot at mainstream Hollywood success.  It had the highest opening ever for an Edgar Wright movie this past weekend (and, in so doing, it beat the so-deplorable-I-couldn’t-force-myself-to-write-a-review-of-it Transformers:  The Last Knight in its second weekend), it’s already made more money than any of Edgar Wright’s past movies at the domestic box office, and the studio’s already demanding a sequel.  So if you’re not a motorhead and you’re not a weirdo millennial but you are worried about wasting your money on a movie nobody else is seeing, rest assured, at least a few regular people liked Baby Driver too.  So now you have no excuse not to see it.  Y’know, not unless I’m about to give you one.

Is it any good?

baby-driver-ipodAs unusual as Baby Driver looks, it takes place in a world very much like our own (though a few years removed judging by the tech — iPods, flip phones, and mid-to-late-2000s-era vehicles).  People here have normal jobs, most things, no matter how fast they’re moving, still obey the laws of physics, and our heroes and villains don’t do anything actually superhuman.  What makes the world of Baby Driver extraordinary is a willful desire on the part of the movie’s director and its stars to do anything other than ordinary.  It’s a movie that’s extremely composed, almost balletic, ethereal and otherworldly, but grounded by crisp camera work and performances strong enough that you’re always invested after only a few lines of dialogue.  The first act of the movie is absolute magic, kinetic and explosive and exciting in the most inventive, engaging, and stylish ways, ways that put to shame the far more conventional movies we’re used to seeing, especially with the movie’s opening chase, which is crazy but still contained just enough in the realm of reality that it comes across as astute and intelligent rather than more of the sheer stupidity we see in most other car movies.  And all of that’s without even considering Baby Driver’s soundtrack which infuses everything, from high-speed chases to walks down the street to get coffee, with a power and cadence that expertly matches the onscreen visuals and the movie’s themes.  Everything that’s good about Baby Driver is at such a heightened level of quality and panache that it matches up to the best musicals without ever feeling lame or artificially constructed.  It’s also kind of a love letter to mechanical things like cars with manual transmissions and iPods with click wheels, and I really appreciated that.baby-driver-gang2.jpg

And if Baby Driver were a short film I could just leave it at that, and I might even be happier that way, but it is a full-length feature, and in that form it doesn’t stand up quite as high.  The truth of Baby Driver is that the first 15 minutes or so are perfection, full of a lyrical energy that thrills and subverts expectations, and what follows, the introduction and exploration of this world, works extremely well too, humming along at a precise rhythm and timing, but once we get into the body of the movie and the crux of Baby’s problems, things slow down.  A lot.baby-driver-gang

While Baby Driver is a comedy, a car chase movie, a heist movie, and a crime movie, it’s primarily a love story, or at least that’s what’s at its core, as Baby and Debora, both orphans, try to pull away from the worlds they’ve lived in towards each other and freedom (of a sort), but beyond some basic commonalities like being attractive and age compatible, having nothing to lose, and liking music, there’s not actually anything to their relationship.  Both actors are pretty good overall and they look good together, but you never buy their attachment, at least not enough to buy what they’re willing to sacrifice for each other, and whether you interpret that simply as an indication of how emotionally empty their lives must have been to so suddenly fall for each other or as just an underdeveloped part of the movie, it’s something that slows the movie to a crawl if only because you start thinking about how much the two aren’t adding up to a real couple.  They’re cute together, but you don’t really feel for them.baby-driver-baby-debora

It’s in this middle section that I actually started to bail out bit on a lot of things the happening simply because, for me, the pace of the preceding action demanded a level of constant intensity that the rest of the movie couldn’t match.  The world starts becoming less boisterous and more grim, story elements were taking a little too long to fall into place, and the movie started to feel a little… … normal.  There’s a fairy tale quality to Baby Driver that comes from the movie’s premise and how much it initially resists convention, but it eventually starts following a more conventional story path than I was expecting.  And, because of that, the rhythm of the movie starts breaking.baby-driver-spacey

Things do eventually pick up,though, as Baby’s brought back in for one more job, and you spend more time with the rest of the movie’s cast.  Jon Hamm’s Buddy and his girlfriend Darling, both part of Doc’s gang, are warm and inviting to Baby, striking a tone that allows us, as audience members, to also feel welcomed into this world, and that works especially well considering where the movie winds up taking them both, while Jamie Foxx puts on just a master class in doing the exact opposite as Bats (and this is where you should start noticing most of these names might not be their real names), constantly keeping everyone on edge and us, as audience members, uneasy with what’s about to happen.  It’s true, the characters are thinly drawn, but they’re thinly drawn in the right way, in the “Why would you need to know anything else about them?” sort of way that avoids unnecessary noise or distraction.  And even though Kevin Spacey’s Doc is the actual source of Baby’s problems, there’s a note of sentimentality between the two towards the movie’s end that really made the whole movie resonate, regain much of the buy-in it had from me in the beginning but lost a bit in the middle, and conclude in a satisfying way.  Even though I’m not a big fan of the way the movie actually ends.

So should I see it?

baby-driver-carA movie like Baby Driver is something you should see precisely because it so earnestly resists convention.  It’s stylish and stylistically its own thing, hyperkinetic, exciting and surprising, and, at its best, it’s the fruition of everything you want to see in a movie without you ever knowing that that’s what you were looking for.  True, it’s kind of empty, maybe even a little underwritten, but it’s not under-imagined, and that lack of depth is, in many ways, the point.  The style is the substance, and I think it’s impossible not to have a huge grin grow across your face as you settle in and just let Baby Driver wash over you with what I think are some of the best car chases ever put to screen.  This is the movie that’s going to take Edgar Wright from fan favourite with a cult following to a name director, the kind of director whose movies you go to regardless of who’s in them or what the movie’s about.

But there is a downside.  If you liked the trailers at all, I don’t think you’ll be let down by Baby Driver, but if you really liked the trailers, you might not be as pleased with the end result as you thought you would be (especially after all of the critical acclaim).  When it’s great, it’s really great, unrivalled even, but it’s not that way all throughout or in every way.  Maybe it’s not fair to expect that, but the things that don’t work, the moments that slow down and start to seem like any other movie, have nearly the same ability to strike you as the good if only because they’re such a huge contrast to all of the things that do work.  I can, however, imagine, revisiting Baby Driver, watching it again a few months from now when it reaches home video, and not being as hard on it.  It’s the kind of movie that deserves to be watched over and over, analyzed and dissected, and I feel certain my appreciation for it will only grow over time.

Thom’s Baby Driver final score

4

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On the Edge

  • I forgot how huge those first iPod boxes were.  Remember what an event just opening them was?  They used to come with a case and a dock and everything.  What a wasted opportunity to sell accessories!
  • For such an expert driver, Baby sure doesn’t put much effort into parking in the lines.  But I notice that in almost every movie where somebody parks their car.
  • “Nasal problems”.  That’s gold and it’s a phrase made only funnier with how often it’s used in the movie.
  • Really wish we saw more of Jon Bernthal’s character. But we didn’t see him again, so I guess, according to his character’s own logic, that means he must be dead.

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