‘Baby Driver’ is a gas, gas, gas

The difference between Edgar Wright and Michael Bay is the difference between balletic and kinetic sensibilities, between a director who appreciates choreography and a director who distrusts audiences enough to keep jabbing their hearts with speed cut with baby laxative. In The World’s End and Hot Fuzz, Wright showed a talent for editing his male characters as if they were Astaires in drawing rooms instead of aliens on pub crawls. Although Ansel Elgort lacks the charisma and smarts of Wright regulars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, he’s the ideal lead in Baby Driver. As the twentysomething with the improbable eponymous name, Elgort has a model-like passiveness; with his involuntary pout, mussed hair, and penchant for ear buds and skinny jeans, Baby is so still that he unnerves strangers — until he’s behind the wheel of a getaway car, where he’s a master of getting thieves out of tight jams. Like every Wright movie except Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver sputters after a spectacular opening and several killer set pieces, and he hasn’t figured out that audiences like guys hooking up with female leads worthy of them, but the summer moviegoing season will likely boast no contraption this delightful.

Baby’s stunts with cars aren’t the most absurd: it’s frcing the audience to swallow the idea that blasting Jon Spencer Blues Explosion into your ears will soothe tinnitus. Baby got it as a result of a childhood accident that also killed his parents. The mother, seen in flashback as Sky Ferreira (!), lives on as an iPod playlist and hundreds of mix tapes to which Baby choreographs his driving and even simple tasks (during one heist he doesn’t signal for the baddies to exit until a song’s beat kicks in). In the film’s most ebullient sequence, Baby skips, jumps, and slides across Atlanta streets on a coffee run soundtracked to Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle,” a corker of a tune that the Rolling Stones couldn’t smother. The coffee’s for closers: mysterious, well-connected ringleader Doc (Kevin Spacey); former Wall Streeter Buddy (Jon Hamm with a Chainsmokers fade) and his wife Darling (Eiza González), with whom he’s permanently lip locked; and Bats (Jamie Foxx), insecure and, as Foghorn Leghorn once remarked, as punchy as a drill press.

The emphasis on Baby’s good heart is one of Baby Driver‘s less felicitous developments. These movies with male protagonists not long for this world require the intervention of sane young women, here played by Lily James as Debora, a diner waitress as fine as the lady in the 1999 Beck song that Baby adores (this prompts an excruciating discussion on the spelling and its derivatives). In addition, Wright saddles Baby with a mute wheelchair-bound black foster dad — a lot of adjectives to live down — who can only scowl as he watches Baby hide big bills beneath a floorboard. He’s a cipher. So is Debora, who is too sane to consent to running away with Baby, pouty mouth and exquisite music taste notwithstanding.

Stuffing his movie with the stuff of several climaxes, Wright doesn’t know how to end Baby Driver. The ostensible climax is the botched robbery of a post office — like the mix tapes and Debra’s not apparently owning a cell phone (he calls her at the diner!) one of many references to a vanished world whose artifacts need fetishizing, about which more in a moment. Situating Baby Driver in downtown Atlanta, complete with recognizable urban landmarks, gives the insistent violence a reality that at times threw me out of the film; the gore rubs against Wright’s music box tone. The performances help. At the turn of the millennium, James Wolcott lamented the new man’s inability to move onscreen. Wayne, Bogart, Gable, Cooper — audiences didn’t need a line of dialogue to identify them by the way they maneuvered indoors or outdoors, seduced by the scent of Chanel or sagebrush. Everyone in Baby Driver can move: from Elgort’s giddy pirouettes to Hamm’s cobra shuffles. Until Wright transforms him into a Terminator in the last act, Hamm gives his worn satyr schtick — a man who has known pleasure and wants more, more, more — surprising dimensions, especially when he and Baby genuinely bond over a shared love of Queen. For too many years a honey baked ham in aspic, Spacey reprises the terse, silken impatience that made audiences love him in the nineties. Foxx, sleepwalking in recent films, wakes up; he has real menace, and he’s believable as a low life who, in his words, does drugs to support a robbery habit. Wright doesn’t overdo the mild jokes in his script either. A dumb-on-paper joke about Mike Myers Halloween masks (no spoiler) works. So does Doc’s grade school nephew, one of the better screen smart alecks in recent years (I did wince though at a villain introduced as a guy who “put the Asian in home invasion”).

A director whose catholic tastes extend to racially balanced musical picks, Wright is a twenty-first century man to his fingertips, a creator of shiny toys with an acute sense of the marketplace: a straight boy lead who’s fey enough for the gays in the audience, Spacey for the House of Cards crowd, Hamm and Foxx for the alpha males. What Wright started with 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World he — almost — refines out of existence in Baby Driver: heterosexual nerd culture ascendant. You will read comparisons to The Driver, Walter Hill’s 1978 film about another blank face chauffeur (Ryan O’Neal) involved in crime; a better analogue is to Streets of Fire, his 1984 dreamscape, lurid with pastels and beautiful faces, in which nothing is at stake. But Elgort’s anomic pleasantness is as apt for the times as O’Neal’s dessicated, beauty-gone-to-seed weariness (Hamm can play the part in a remake). I’ll take both over the hothouse horrors of Nicolas Winding Refn or Quentin Tarantino’s elephantine banality. If Baby Driver becomes a hit, which is likely, expect more recycled quirk. Savor its mild charms before it curdles.

GRADE: A-

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