“Baby Driver” is filled with incredible stunts and feats of cinematic magic. The most impressive may just be making Ansel Elgort not just likable, but sympathetic, too.
Filmmaker Edgar Wright is best known for his work with old British buddies Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, a comedy duo that succeed in large part because they're so likable and relatable; everyone wants to hang out with the slacker dudes in “Spaced” and “Shaun of the Dead,” the TV show and movie that made them famous. In casting Elgort as the titular getaway driver, though, Wright took on a big challenge; the 20-year-old best known for “The Fault In Our Stars” and being a celebrity DJ is somehow easy to hate -- he said so himself in a recent Billboard Magazine cover story.
And yet he's suddenly easy to root for in “Baby Driver,” in which he plays a character that might be best described as a more innocent version of the auto-savant Ryan Gosling portrayed in the 2011 cult hit “Drive.” Baby has a tragic backstory, one that left him an orphan with permanent tinnitus. To drown out the droning, he listens to an endless playlist on his huge collection of old iPods, and the music provides a soundtrack for his insane getaway driving.
He's only aiding heists to pay off a debt he owes to a local kingpin, played by a deliciously evil Kevin Spacey. Of course, he gets in too deep, coerced to keep on driving into higher and higher stakes until shit hits the fan.
Wright worked for years to make this movie possible (he picked up on it again after dropping it of “Ant-Man”), and his obsessive planning is obvious throughout. With colorful outlaws played by Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Eiza Gonzalez in his passenger seats, Baby flies and swerves and spins out across Atlanta's streets and freeways. He's always somehow in control, or at least able to regain it in the nick of time.
All the action scenes are set to music, choreographed to the wide array of songs Wright selected before he wrote the screenplay. It's a gimmick that might fail in the hands of other directors, but in his sixth feature, Wright shows more than ever that he can stylize without exhausting the audience's patience.
Lily James plays Baby's love interest, and while her own tragic backstory gets some perfunctory acknowledgement, it's not all that deep a part. She falls for Baby almost instantly, and he for her; it's reminiscent of all those old movies in which the hero and his lady declare their love for one another after just a few hours together. Here, they may not know each other all that well, but they can sense a kindred spirit. Her work as a waitress in a retro-style diner only emphasizes that sense of throwback romance even more. Plus, it allows Wright to ground them both as working class Americans, making the desperation even more palpable.
Spacey and Foxx are fed the funniest lines, as remorseless criminals driven by money, power, and fragile egos. Foxx stands out as a maniac reminiscent of his “Horrible Bosses” character. And Jon Hamm is given his best movie role yet, a baddie with a soft side offset by a short temper.
Between its slick action, killer punch lines, and unexpectedly vulnerable performance from Elgort, “Baby Driver” stands as the best movie of the summer thus far. And it's one that can please both fans of blockbusters and people who are desperate for a little more substance in their major studio releases. It's definitely going to be at least a cult hit, but with good word of mouth and a great opening weekend, it could be the summer'a bug breakout hit.