Early in Edgar Wright’s ‘Baby Driver,’ getaway driver and automobile savant Baby (Ansel Elgort), wearing earbuds, pulls up to a bank. Before his passengers (Jon Bernthal, Eiza González and Jon Hamm) launch their robbery, he scrolls through his iPod for the perfect beat —”Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. While the heist is underway, Baby waits outside and jams in the driver’s seat.
So does Wright, who stages the entire film around Baby’s favorite music. Gunshots and other sounds are perfectly in rhythm, and noises around the characters regularly drift in and out of the musical landscape. It doesn’t take long to notice the effect, which turns the whole affair into a two-hour music video: A bloody, stylish, entertaining-as-hell music video.
Wright is no stranger to copping genres. 2005’s “Shaun of the Dead” managed to combine a zombie apocalypse with a romantic comedy and “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” followed Michael Cera’s quest to kick virtual ass using kung-fu and video games. “Baby Driver” isn’t a comedy like the rest of Wright’s filmography. But his usual playfulness is on full display as he hijacks the best of heist and car chase movies.
The film’s best sequences use long takes and visual gags to keep the audience on its toes. Wright is so in command of his vision here that it’s difficult to find fault in what he’s doing. Add a dynamite cast — including Jamie Foxx as unhinged gun-for-hire Bats and Kevin Spacey as domineering crime boss Doc — and the result is movie magic.
Too bad the movie itself isn’t particularly concerned with narrative. The film follows Baby, who does getaway jobs for Doc to pay off earlier debts. Tinnitus — a result of a childhood accident that killed his parents — keeps his ears ringing. Earbuds are his medicine of choice and the music that funnels from a suitably massive collection of iPods fuels his driving prowess. After a series of heists finally evens the score, Baby is free. That is, before Doc threatens his new girlfriend Debora (Lily James) and ropes him into one last job.
The “last job” in question goes expectedly haywire from the onset. Tensions in the group rise, leading to a collection of frantic gunfights and action sequences that bleed hipster chic. It’s cartoonishly violent, but not outrageously so. All the while, the soundtrack thumps along and drives the action. Think “Drive,” with a sense of humor.
It sounds perfect. But “Baby” falters when asked to find an ending. The last third of the film’s final act relies on a series of emotional beats established earlier. But making these characters contend with a dramatic arc is a fruitless endeavor. That doesn’t impede Wright’s sense of style — far from it — but it does magnify the film’s lack of substance. It’s great fun. But look too closely, and it’ll leave you empty.
Still, maybe that’s the point. Watching the great Kevin Spacey surrender to an over-the-top role is worth the price of admission alone, even if the casting feels secondary to the stereotypes it fills. There’s Buddy (Ham) and Darling (González), the violent criminal lovers. There’s Bats, the crackhead of the group. And then there’s Baby, earbuds in, bobbing his head to the music. Listen with him and everything else drifts away.
Follow Dana on Twitter @AlstonDalston.