At gunpoint I’d have to admit that Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver reminds me less of movies on the Hill/De Palma spectrum than it does Andrea Arnold’s American Honey from last year. Both are the first American-set movies by British directors, both view (and fetishize) this dark, ailing netherworld of a country as an immersive zone of truck-stop iconography and pop music utopia. In Arnold’s masterwork, for my eyes a kind of Close Encounters mothership offering shelter to every aspect of our jaundiced national cinema that needs nurturing and rescue, the disenfranchised and permanently ignored (thought not by the capitalistic machine) youthful vagabonds use Rhianna’s presence on supermarket radio to break out in sloppy, joyous, lustful-sweaty dance. Wright’s lead character Baby (Ansel Elgort) listens to music on his earbuds by medical necessity—he has tinnitus from a childhood car accident that also absconded with his beloved mother—and has developed through a lifetime of machinated sonics a kind of 4/4 way of life, his every movement, word and gesture adhering with Gene Kelly grace to his musical brainwaves. An opening credits tracking shot of the upmost euphoria shows Baby sliding and gliding through his daily paces, and not only is Elgort up to the task, his YA-scum-sheen is permanently showered off.
Wright’s characters are regular young men who want to live in genre movies and are allowed to by their auteurist guide. His widely derided Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World movingly elevated a group of common, dating young people to mythical superheroes and archetypes. It reveled in vistas of comic book unreality to support everyday emotions and entanglements, rendering the fantastic images as actual as anything in a neorealist film. Unfortunately it sunk (Michael Cera’s lead-man wimpiness was admittedly wearying at that point) and Wright retreated to the likeable creative shrug of The World’s End. Baby Driver marks his second attempt to forge a cinematic identity away from Frost and Pegg, and his choice of Elgort is a pretty boy coup reminiscent of Cronenberg’s winning bet on Robert Pattinson. I wonder how autobiographical Baby is. He’s a guy who lives in and through pop culture, using his music to sync up his getaway job for a crew of shady crooks (among them Jon Hamm, Flea, Jamie Foxx, corralled and overlorded by a typically purring Kevin Spacey). When he meets cute waitress Debora (Lily James, an English actress doing a strange Southern drawl) they instantly woo with chemistry so dreamlike it feels like a rewrite of life, an attempt to shave off its awkwardness and make it “movie.” (Remember Woody Allen’s words at the end of Annie Hall? He isn’t worth disregarding.) The interiors—Edward Hopper diner and the warehouse heist planning room seen in 60% of all crime movies—are of a marked contrast to Baby’s vinyl-and-cassette-pocked apartment he shares with his aging, deaf guardian Joseph (CJ Jones). It recalls Shaun’s average shlub digs, yet in the Americanized context that suggest Wright is a movie fed wanderer, a stranger in a land less strange than filtered through memories of exported pop. Arnold’s handheld grit contrasts aesthetically from Wright’s impeccably composed widescreen shots, but they both share the displaced belief that America is inherently romantic, and then when music is played young people smitten with each other should dance to it.
Baby Driver is at its peak when it dreams this kind of should-be USA, and often that involves the scenes where Elgort and James flirt in a continuum that encompasses both Godard and McBride’s Breathless and the early parts of Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde (pointedly referenced here in the context of modern expectations of masculinity). A sequence in a laundry mat scored by T. Rex’s “Deborah” caused me to mist up just as the doorway portal at the end of Scott Pilgrim did: this is the work of a poetically inclined fanboy-visionary whose first experience falling in love perhaps changed him without making him lose essential genre jones. The analogue scratch of vinyl matches with a closeup of Debra as the waitress Goddess who is a walking unencumbered heart of gold. The only comparable magic is found occasionally in the work of Max Landis, especially his nearly excellent and totally overlooked queer LA fantasia Me Him Her. (Check that out, it utterly slays La La Land.) The Monochrome images of Debora dressed as the 50s in front of an old car that sometimes play in Baby’s head reach for a shimmering American Honey now blissfully attainable.
The crime stuff is good but not as inherently powerful. The film somewhat stiltedly transitions from The Young Girls Of Rochefort to Heat, and as capable as Spacey and Hamm are (at this point Jamie Foxx has done too many goofy side projects, like that Shazaam gameshow, for me to take him very seriously anymore) it’s hard to discern if Wright is parodying these gangsters or endowing them with tiredly badass pulp power. Every car chase clicks with cinematic mastery, but the climactic parade of squibs and a villain who keeps comin’ feel like grafted-on grime, possibly as an attempt to impress the rapidly diminishing and scarily embubbled Tarantino. (Rodriguez’s theatrics in his later Mariachi movies is the nadir of this long, misguided trend.) Wright excelled in the action of his first two Cornetto films because of his very English taste. (Often slyly cutting away from carnage until the whole thing blows over.) The same applies to the rogues’ dialogue, a crazy quilt of swagger, threats and wordplay that can resemble on a dime post-modernist literature or lines from the Fast franchise. A haywire WTF cameo from Paul Williams as a shady gunrunner amplifies the confusion. Now, since Wright is one of the most superb craftsmen in contemporary English speaking film his action scenes have an arresting, enviable pulse. Yet he’s more Godard than he thinks or would probably want to be. More Tati. Godard’s “Crime” movies always had those quotes around them. He could have aced any realm of action cinema but his sensibility demanded more red than blood. I think Wright’s does too.
All said though, I was nearly skipping out of it, as Baby will do after his life/movie finally ends. A large-scale wide-release mainstream film that isn’t a happy meal or a byproduct of corporate synergy, that is entirely self-contained with a story that ends instead of setting up more of the same shit in two years, that has respect for the history of its medium instead of broadly courting social media technology and film-adverse trendhoppers. Oh, and no tired raunch insidiously metered out by the conservative hypocritical family values machine under the guise of “Feminism.” A real movie! A real fucking movie!