Lukewarm Takes #20 Baby Driver (2017)
It’s a testament to the public’s enormous, justified affection for writer-director Edgar Wright that while he’s led what seems to be a charmed life by any standard, there’s nevertheless a surprisingly pervasive sense that Wright had been shortchanged by the film industry.
This underdog perception is rooted in the commercial underperformance of 2010's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which was burdened with impossible expectations when it was pegged somewhere along the line as the next big geek crossover smash and failed to deliver the boffo box-office anticipated despite generally good reviews and instantly attracting, and holding onto, a fervent, ever-growing cult. But it’s equally, if not more attributable to the long time Wright spent happily developing an Ant-Man movie for Marvel only to part ways with the blockbuster specialists over creative differences. Peyton Reed went on to direct a perfectly passable, reasonably entertaining movie about the tiny little hero with the very big skill set but I’m certainly not alone in mourning the Edgar Wright Ant-Man movie that might have been, especially with Paul Rudd in the lead.
So even though Wright had beloved cult treasures like Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End and Scott Pilgrim to his name, fans were rooting for him to experience the kind of breakthrough commercial success that had eluded him.
That’s where 2017’s mid-budgeted Baby Driver came in. It roared in, seemingly out of nowhere, to win rave reviews and a blockbuster international take of well over two hundred and twenty million dollars. That’s a whole lot of moolah for a modestly budgeted production.
On one hand, it’s not surprising that the movie was such a roaring success. It’s a spectacularly entertaining film about guns, money, cars and rock and roll but it also reflects the kind of deeply personal, idiosyncratic vision you don’t see enough in commercial filmmaking these days.
Like Ryan O’Neal’s character in The Driver and Gosling’s in Drive, but unlike Corey Feldman in License to Drive, Algort floats through this world like a ghost until it’s time for action, and then the tires begin to squeal and he does what God, and also possibly the Devil, put him on Earth to do.
It’s interesting to me that Baby Driver was the movie that finally gave Wright a proper blockbuster while Drive was somewhat famously, if not an outright flop, at least a distinct commercial disappointment compared to the hype and publicity. The two films share a certain lineage and sensibility but Wright is a consummate entertainer. In Baby Driver he wants to give audiences the exhilaration of hitting a really good groove while rocking out to your tunes for 100 minutes and at its best, Baby Driver does just that. Winding-Refn, in sharp contrast, seems contemptuous of the idea of entertainment in general. If audiences derive pleasure from his work, he seems intent on ensuring that they suffer a little for that enjoyment as well.
Baby Driver hit me where I lived, literally as well as metaphorically. It takes place in my home town of Atlanta and features, in Baby, a lonesome and mysterious getaway driver with a heart of gold played by Ansel Algort, who is perpetually rocking a pair of headphones.
Here’s the thing: listening to tunes has always been my jam. When I was a teenager, I only took off my headphones if I was in class, showering, asleep or making love to a satisfied woman who totally exists.
Like Baby, my headphones were such a part of me and my sullen sensibility that I regularly got asked about them. Why was I always listening to music? Because I was a teenager, so of course I hated people and I loved rock and roll music. And hip hop. And avoiding people. I was passionate about my tunes and my walkman, but I was even more passionate about not talking to other human beings unless it was absolutely necessary.
I was my group home’s answer to Ricky in Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa. Like Ricky, my parents were unable to take care of me, I had a tragic air that hung over me like a thick fog or Pigpen’s cloud of dust and I was always bopping along the street to the tunes in my head, blocking the scary outside world out and losing myself in an all-encompassing world of sound.
Again, I don’t want to brag, but I’ve always been known as a guy who enjoyed listening to music. I’m a happily married man but if I were single and made out a dating profile I would stress this aspect of my personality by including something like “I enjoy listening to all different kinds of music.” Then a prospective partner would know I didn’t fuck around because I listened to many different genres, not just the Journey and Foreigner they force-feed you on Top 40 radio.
In Baby Driver, Algort plays the title character, a lonesome youth and reluctant criminal savant employed by a sinister, creepy authority figure played by noted real-life sinister, creepy authority figure Kevin Spacey. Spacey’s real-life infamy has ruined his film performances for some people, like my Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast co-host Clint Worthington, but to me it just adds another icky element of authenticity to his many performances as creeps, bad guys and creepy bad guys.
Spacey isn’t the only proper movie star in a supporting role. Jon Hamm, best known as Stinker in the audio book for Mike Sacks’ Stinker Lets Loose, plays sexy sleaze bag Buddy while Electro himself, Jamie Foxx has a flashy supporting role as criminal cohort Bats.
The film’s premise boasts an archetypal simplicity. A young man blessed and cursed with both fundamental innocence and an easily and lucratively exploitable skill set is taken advantage of by a powerful older man while trying to break free from the criminal underworld for the sake of girl he’s in love with. Even the profession of the romantic lead is straight out of a pulp paperback: she’s a waitress.
A wheelman. A waitress. A boss. The accomplice with a screw loose. The other accomplice with an even bigger screw loose. The sexy femme fatale pushing her unstable lover into committing gratuitous acts of super-violence by shamelessly manipulating his jealousy. These are all well-worn, familiar archetypes that Wright has a lot of fun playing with.
Baby Driver is more self-consciously pulpy than I was anticipating, perhaps because of the almost uniformly glowing reviews. It almost feels like a feature length music video and for once that qualifies as praise rather than criticism. After all, when MTV debuted in the 1980s, it was initially acclaimed for smuggling cutting-edge, borderline avant-garde European visual aesthetics onto cable television as commercials for recordings and recording artists. There was an excitement, a newness, a life-affirming kinetic energy that Baby Driver recaptures. It couldn’t help but remind me of the moment I first fell in love with the intoxicating combination of sound and image, something that has defined film nearly as much as it defines music videos.
Baby Driver captures the euphoria, the ecstasy of listening, of music, of swaggering down the street to a whole different universe, a whole different sound, a whole different vibe than everyone else around you. It locks into the exquisite solitude of the satisfied iPod shuffle archivist, that sense of being alone in your own word yet accompanied and entertained by any entertainer, any artist, any song you desire.
Baby Driver made me realize that I am deeply nostalgic about outdated and discontinued iPods—I got a Pavlovian shiver of music geek excitement just looking at those wheel-based, easily broken technological marvels—even as I continue to view the iPod as miraculous new technology. No matter how deeply ingrained in the culture they may be, my dumb caveman brain still marvels, “Me able listen thousand of songs on baby computer! This truly technology’s miraculous endpoint!”
I felt the same way about the VCR. Thanks to the VCR, if you wanted to see Captain Ron—but only Captain Ron, as it was somewhat confusingly and frustratingly the only movie available in the format—you had to sit at home waiting for Captain Ron to appear on television. What if you were asleep when that happened? Or what if the makers of Captain Ron decided that it would sully the scope and vision of their achievement for it to be shown on anything less than a giant motion picture screen? You’d be fucked, friend.
Alternately, you’d have to wait for your college repertory theater to show Captain Ron and, to quote my favorite Clint Eastwood one-liner/catchphrase, from In the Line of Fire, that’s not gonna happen.
Where Wright's previous film, and the concluding entry in the Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End, was rooted in the complicated relationships of its well-constructed characters, Baby Driver is more about our relationship with music, with technology, with nostalgia and the countless places where they blur and overlap. It’s an iPod musical, a pulp paperback onscreen, a musical and visual X-ray of its creator’s soul.
I’m glad I finally got around to seeing Baby Driver but I do wish that I had been successful in my attempts to see it during its smashingly successful theatrical run. Alas, the movie proved just a little too successful for my purposes because both times my wife and I went to the movie theater to see it, it was sold out.
While Baby Driver was tons of fun on my TV it undoubtedly would have been a deeper, richer, more satisfying experience if I had been able to see it with a packed Atlanta audience. Listening to music is a quintessentially solitary endeavor but there’s something about the communal joy of watching a crowd-pleaser like Baby Driver with a satisfied, enthusiastic crowd that can’t be replicated at home by yourself.
Even when seen in less than ideal circumstances, Baby Driver still feels like pure cinema, a film with a sense of style so intense it becomes substance. The film finds Wright working in a decidedly different gear than his collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost but with just as much palpable joy and virtuosity. Baby’s not the only one who is very good at what he does. That Wright kid’s pretty good too.
Wanna hear me and my boy Clint "Young Sheldon" Worthington discuss Baby Driver? Oh yes you do. And you can do so here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/nathan-rabins-happy-cast/id1312945471?mt=2
Support Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place so that its namesake does not have to resort to a life of crime over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace