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30 Minutes on: "Baby Driver"

"Baby Driver," a hardboiled action comedy about a hearing-impaired getaway car driver getting mixed up with murderous thieves, is one of the most enjoyable films of the year, despite the fact quite a bit of it doesn't work or isn't as great as it has every right to be, given the caliber of talent involved. I've been assured that many people think the lead actor, Ansel Elgort, is perfect, which seems to me an objective confirmation that aesthetic judgments are subjective. As Baby, the orphaned, tinnitus-afflicted teenaged driver, I thought Elgort was a charisma black hole: a capable actor who radiates decency but never rises beyond that to become remarkable, much less as compelling in his own way as the film's scuzzball supporting players. I kept picturing what a livelier or more eccentric performer could've done in a part this original. The movie has other problems, too, which I'll detail shortly, including a bland love story (opposite Lily James as Debora, the coffee shop waitress that Baby is sweet on, and who becomes a pawn and target in the film's final act). 

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And yet....this passion project from writer-director Edgar Wright (who apparently never makes anything but passion projects; kudos) is a rare handsomely produced action blockbuster that's not a sequel or a franchise builder or part of an expanded universe. And the direction is remarkably original, so much so that even touches that seem excessive win grudging admiration for their sheer cheekiness (such as the way that every action beat, from cars braking to guns firing and fists thudding against flesh, is literally wedded to a beat in a soundtrack cue that Baby blasts through his earbuds). Wright has made the first musical where cars do the dancing. (The hero's own modest steps, mainly in scenes opposite his blind surrogate father, played by CJ Jones, don't count, as they are mere warmups to the automotive choreography.) You might find other examples here and there in film history of works that (ahem) paved the way for Wright, such as Steven Spielberg's "1941," an action-comedy with strong musical elements that featured a USO dance that turned into a brawl, and John Landis's "The Blues Brothers," which interspersed traditional musical performances with gigantic chase scenes involving dozens or more vehicles, choreographed with a Busby Berkeley-like eye. But if we accept that films like those are part of a tiny sub-genre, we should then allow that there are different kinds of films within it, and distinguish between the traditional automotive musical, where the vehicular destruction is clearly delineated from the songs and score, and "Baby Driver," a "sung through" action musical where it is impossible to separate the music that Baby listens to during action sequences from the action itself. 

The camera movements, the edits, even the actors' gestures are timed so that they match or enhance particular flourishes in a song that's playing through Baby's earbuds. A menacing drum solo might have one or two beats matched to onscreen gunshots, for instance. Sometimes the direction and editing appear to take their cues from the vocals in a song, other times from the drum track, other times from an electric guitar solo or a bass line. In a scene where Baby observes a presentation by his crime boss, mentor and "bad dad," Kevin Spacey's Doc, while simultaneously listening to a song, Wright gives us a closeup of Baby's fingers drumming on a tabletop, then a wider shot of Doc gesturing in the air with his hands; the drumming fingers match one instrument in the song, Spacey's hands another. 

The business of cutting every action to fit some element on the soundtrack (percussion, piano, horns, whatever) is clever and funny, but there were points where I wanted Wright to back off for a second and let the actors and story breathe. Unmodulated brilliance can be suffocating. Nevertheless, this is clearly a film that's been thought about, mentally fussed over, for a long time, and nothing about its style feels slipshod. Even the repetitious or misguided bits seem like byproducts of genuine enthusiasm. 

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I have to wonder if the essential sweetness-naivete-goofiness of "Baby Driver" set off the internal machismo meters of some car chase movie fans, who have zapped Wright on social media for doing things here that buff favorites like "The Driver" and "Drive" also do. Moments of mayhem notwithstanding, this is a light movie with a light touch, self-deprecating even at its most deliriously overwrought, and it doesn't seem impressed by displays of preening machismo that other crime thrillers treat with religious reverence. There's not much difference tonally between this film Wright's "Hot Fuzz," which in theory is a spoof of a very specific type of he-man action picture (Michael Bay variety), except that the male characters tend to die in order of their intractability, and in the final third of "Baby Driver," the violence starts to hurt, emotionally as well as physically.  

Wright could've pushed that a lot further than he did, frankly; but if he had, the movie's strawberry milkshake vibe might've melted, and audiences might've gone home disturbed. Wright has never made a movie that's less than impeccably directed, but his innate sweetness works better with a dash of vinegar. All things considered, I prefer his teamwork with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the so-called "Cornetto trilogy" ("Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz" and "World's End"). Pegg especially brings an earthbound pub-crawling wiseass earthiness that seems to go missing when he's not involved. There's a hint of unhealthy Oedipal projection in Baby's fascination with Debora (who looks like his late mum, who died in a car wreck) and his bloody conflict with an especially persistent affiliate of Doc's, Jon Hamm's glowering, doomed romantic, Buddy (the third and most toxic father figure in a movie filled with them), but Wright isn't David Lynch or even Nicolas Winding Refn, so he skates along the edge of this Freudian-Jungian swamp rather than plunging us into its deep end. It's just not that kind of movie.

The story of "Baby Driver" is considerably less interesting than its execution, but what action film is that not true of? (Very few.) This is another one of those "one last big score and then I'm out" movies, and of course there are complications and sudden, shocking deaths and the lingering threat of violence against the people that Baby loves most.  The car chases are mostly brilliant, though filmed a bit too close for my taste, and the last half hour is a rocket sled of slapstick. Wright keeps us in suspense about what'll happen next mainly by having Doc cycle through different crews from one heist to the next. The final foursome consists of Baby; Buddy; Jamie Foxx's batty Bats, who'd be the Joe Pesci character if this were a Scorsese gangster flick; and Buddy's lover Darling, played by Eiza Gonzalez. 

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Wright serves up at least three, maybe more, potentially perfect closing shots, but always decides to keep going, maybe out of fear that audiences might go home unhappy had any facet of the story's conclusion been left open to interpretation. The coda, which sees a judge giving a light sentence to a kid who was an accessory to multiple heists that caused untold amounts of property damage and cost the lives of many citizens, including a warehouse full of cops, but was nice to an old man and gave a carjacking victim her purse back, feels like a major tactical error. Besides gilding the narrative lily, it'll make some viewers think about how this film is set in majority-black Atlanta yet gives us no sense (outside of a couple of nervy moments involving Bats) of the city's racial dynamics, and also that it could not have wrapped up this way if Baby had been played by an actor of color. 

Speaking of which: of all the film's principal cast members, Foxx makes the strongest impression. He's a versatile character actor with the physique of a movie star, and he can be earnest, tough, sexy or goofy, depending on the film, but I can't recall him ever seeming as incandescently dangerous and horrifyingly funny as he is in "Baby Driver." Hamm nearly matches him. His character is, perhaps not coincidentally, an alternate universe version of his "Mad Men" character Don Draper -- a white collar criminal turned outlaw. Hamm plugs his weathered velvet voice and sad eyes into the character's angry, aggrieved heart and shows us new sides of his talent. On the basis of this performance, he could easily coast for the rest of his life playing thugs with romantic hearts who cannot escape their own warped sense of honor. The last act of Buddy's story is Humphrey Bogart-worthy: he keeps coming after Baby like Bogart's maniacal "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" character Fred C. Dobbs by way of Max Cady. I can easily envision an alternate universe version of "Baby Driver" built around a love triangle of Bats, Buddy and Darling, with Baby and Doc and the rest serving as colorful sideline players, but that's not the movie Wright wanted to make. 

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