“Baby Driver” is bubblegum crime, a pop-infused whirlwind of electric thrills and fizzy romance. It’s a heckuva lot of fun while it lasts, and more than a little catchy, but don’t expect to be moved by it.
The eponymous Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver, one we’re repeatedly assured is the “best in the business.” We don’t really need to hear that, as writer/director Edgar Wright masterfully demonstrates the fact in an exhilarating opening car chase that sees Baby elude dozens of cops in broad daylight. Baby is never pictured without one of his many iPods, which he uses to drown out severe tinnitus. The pulsing beats of his pop tunes help him concentrate as he drives. They get him in the kind of zone where evading an army of cops is easier to him than parallel parking is to the rest of us.
Baby works for Doc (Kevin Spacey), a gangster who assembles freelance criminals for daring heists. Doc is one of Spacey’s best roles in years, a ruthless, droll old crook with an unexpected layer of humanity. Baby owes Doc big for an earlier mistake, so his forays into the world of high-speed chases are a form of penance.
A girl appears, as so often happens in the movies. She’s Debora (Lily James), a chatty waitress who bonds with Baby over music. “Every song is about you,” she says after learning his name, and he’s instantly in love. Of course, his professional life is about to spin out of control and collide with what little personal life he has.
An exuberant crime story follows, albeit one that gets a bit too sentimental at the end. Edgar Wright has a gift for visual flair and strong characters, but he’s also the screenwriting equivalent of the geek who talks too much about the wrong things.
Consider Baby’s love story. It’s sweet, but almost pure surface. The romance lacks a sense of deep longing or scorching lust to take it a plot device. When the couple are seen as willing to do anything for one another towards the end, it lacks the emotional punch that it needs to be great. And Wright establishes several plot threads, such as Baby’s habit of recording his conversations, only to leave them underutilized or unresolved.
But there’s another part of the movie that always crackles. It involves three bank robbers. The first is Buddy (Jon Hamm), a former Wall Street man who is even deadlier than he lets on (and that’s a lot). There’s Darla (Eiza Gonzalez), Buddy’s girlfriend with whom he is desperately in love. And then there’s Bats (Jamie Foxx), an unhinged, menacing, motor-mouthed killer with a knack for incisive observations.
Wright puts Baby in a room (or car) with the robbers and lets them bounce off one another, their rotten impulses and colossal egos promising something explosively, catastrophically violent. And he delivers on the promise in a way that stays within the expected movie framework but takes an unexpected direction. Think of the final plot points as setting an iPod to “Shuffle” and you’ll get the idea.