SXSW Review: You Can Dance To BABY DRIVER

Edgar Wright’s latest is an action anthem.

Five seconds into Baby Driver, and you’re in. 

Ansel Elgort’s Baby sits behind the wheel of his getaway car, earbuds in, bopping to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms.” The car’s in park, but Baby’s moving. He turns the wheel to the beat. He drums the dashboard and sets the windshield wipers to the beat. Before this Baby even drives the car, he’s in the pantheon of cool getaway drivers. By the time he gets in gear, you already know how good he is.

Baby’s whole body is music. Those earbuds are always around his neck. He’s constantly recording on a tiny tape deck he carries with him, ready to sample random snippets of dialogue on his low-tech setup, insults tossed his way turned into pretty decent tracks. He swings down the street like he’s Gene Kelly in shades, and with that angelic face and ineffable rhythm, you think, “This is a good boy.”

But Baby’s in with a bad crowd. He’s the driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey), the mastermind behind a series of heists, with a rotating team including Buddy (Jon Hamm), Bats (Jamie Foxx), Darling (Eiza González) and Griff (Jon Bernthal). Baby’s urged to give up the life of crime by his foster father Joe (CJ Jones), but it’s not until he meets Debora (Lily James) that he decides he’s ready to live clean. Of course, it’s not going to be that easy.

This is a movie that moves. Being an Edgar Wright picture, it won’t be news to you that the soundtrack’s masterful, but Baby Driver is its own music, every beat and moment and movement playing off one another in perfect choreography. The audience can’t help but move, either. The film’s so rhythmic, so kinetic, that it pulls you into its cadence, bringing you into Baby’s world as surely as if you were sharing headphones. And just because Edgar Wright’s soundtrack dexterity is a known quantity at this point doesn’t mean that Baby Driver’s music doesn’t have the power to surprise. Wright includes a lot of Motown and soul songs later sampled in hip-hop, bringing a sense of poignant nostalgia along with the hint of something more current and interesting.

It’s got the coolest energy, a fuel source that goes beyond the adrenaline of the car chase and gunplay scenes - though those scenes are astonishing. There’s no chance of thinking of anything else during Baby Driver’s action. It’s too deliberate, too present. Every moment is coherent and riveting, with no CGI in sight. It’s true that no other scene really matches those opening ten minutes, but that’s only because there aren’t many scenes in any movie that match the opening ten minutes of Baby Driver. Even when it’s not being the coolest damn movie you’ve ever seen, it’s still pretty damn cool.

So, yeah, the action is great. Baby Driver's also really funny, big laughs milked out of crafty dialogue and remarkably weird characters. It’s immensely quotable and worthy of dawning a thousand group Halloween costumes, if the world were a better place. The romance works, too, a misfits against the world type of love story, with James taking a wisp of a character and giving her heft and history. Even if you take out the tremendous action in Baby Driver, we’d be left with a very rare combination of hilarious and sexy, a movie that delights from the inside out, that appeals to every part of the id.

But what works best about Baby Driver is Baby himself. Elgort has a singular nonchalance, this unshakable composure that is never at odds with the tragic humanity in his eyes. During that first, incredible car chase, all of the veteran bank robbers in the car – older tough guys like Hamm and Bernthal – lose their cool repeatedly as Baby careens around 18-wheelers, concrete barriers and buildings, but Baby never phases. He knows he’s got this. He sits in serene, rather than stony, silence, listening to music as Doc details the plans for each heist, and though he never removes the buds, he can repeat back every detail perfectly. He’s got a half-baked history that’s both ridiculous and perfect for the character: childhood calamity, a hearing disability, a deaf foster dad (Jones is wonderful in the role) who’s trained him in lip-reading and ASL, only two of the unusual superpowers Baby has at his disposal.

For all that, he never seems impervious to us, the audience. He’s impossibly cool, impossibly good at what he does, magnetic enough to consistently draw focus away from Jon Hamm, who gives a terrific unhinged performance very unlike the actor’s previous roles. But Baby’s also sad, and vulnerable, so lovingly protective of Joe and Debora and his memories of his mother that he’s riddled with weak spots, these soft little liabilities that Doc and the others can exploit for their own gain.

Baby Driver’s a little messy, and the penultimate act could use some real tightening, as there’s a series of plans and pauses that decelerate the action for half an hour before we get to the climax. It’s okay. Every minute we spend with Baby feels like a gift, and Baby Driver resolves itself in such an unexpected way that any detour from typical three-act structure feels intentional, if not entirely successful. This is an outrageously fun film, a love letter to high-octane action (the coffee shop in Baby Driver is even called “Octane Coffee”) that’s also got romance and laughs and the best tempo you’ve ever tapped your toes to. Baby Driver is a surprise, an all-timer song of a film that you’ll want to play again and again.

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