Tuesday, June 27, 2017

“BABY DRIVER” IS ONE HELLUVA RIDE


Filmmaker Edgar Wright is the real deal. He’s only made a handful of film comedies but in each he has demonstrated a mastery of what it takes to tell tales that elicit howls of laughter. Not only does he know how to write characters and stories, but as a director, he’s expert at composition, editing and scoring, knowing just how to frame a scene to make it funnier. Only Wes Anderson is as definitive a comedy impresario today. But now, Wright is branching out. His latest film is called BABY DRIVER and while it is still funny as hell in many places, it’s mostly one helluva ride into the adventure realm. This one displays Wright working at the top of his game and it may finally give him the household name status he deserves.

By all rights, he should have been such for his “Cornetto Trilogy” he wrote with actor Simon Pegg, consisting of SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ, and THE WORLD’S END. Those films got him a beloved cult status, as did his adaption of SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD. That’s still his most remarkable achievement for my money, as he truly created a world full of bizarre energy and rhythms that made it wholly unique in the comic book movie universe. I’m also a huge fan of his parody trailer DON’T, contained in the middle of GRINDHOUSE, and wish it would become an actual movie just like MACHETE did. But now, with BABY DRIVER poised to be the monster hit the pre-opening buzz suggests it will be, the world may soon be Wright’s oyster, and he’ll be able to do anything he wants and get proper due for it.

Filmmaker Edgar Wright.
Every shot, sound effect and gesture in BABY DRIVER has Wright written all over it. It is truly the film of an auteur firing on all cylinders. In fact, it’s such the work of a virtuoso, it at times comes close to being too self-conscious. Still, I think what Wright is doing with this picture is not only entering the world of action/adventure that is driving so much of the cinematic market these days, but I believe he is parodying it too. After all, a story about an underworld employee looking to get out of his employment situation by pulling off one last heist/job/murder has practically become a sub-genre itself. But if Wright is toiling here in the land of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, or for that matter Steven Soderbergh, at least he’s applying his Wright-ian eccentricities and sense of humor to it all.

His story focuses on Baby (an adorable and sly Ansel Elgort), the baby-faced getaway driver working for crime impresario Doc (Kevin Spacey). Doc plans intricate robberies and employs hardened criminal veterans to do so. His “good luck charm” is the post-teen Baby who is in his employ because he stole from him in his youth and is paying off a debt. As the movie starts, Baby is pulling off his second-to-last heist to fulfill said debt, and as talented as he is at maneuvering a set of wheels, he doesn’t enjoy being a criminal.

Ansel Elgort as the title character in BABY DRIVER.
In the very first moments of the film, Wright sets his audience up to take Baby’s POV through music and rhythm. Not only does Baby listen to specific tunes that get his adrenaline going but he times his actions to them. Every gesture that Baby makes, from how he casually taps his fingers on the wheel, to how he revs his engine to meet the crescendo in a song, to how he brakes during well, a break in the orchestration, is synched to his choice of music. Of course, Wright is not only writing a specific character quirk, one that will both help and hurt the future heists that are coming, but he’s also pimping the use of music in movies to underline how an audience should feel given the track someone like a Tarantino or Scorsese has so painfully picked to manipulate us with. It’s both in the moment and meta, and it keeps us glued to Baby as well as takes us out of his story a bit too. It’s as if Wright wants us to know we’re watching a movie, and that he is pulling our strings. He’s that magician on those specials from a decade ago who dazzled us with his feats, but did so while showing us the tricks of his trade.

Baby’s music peccadillos help him tune out the unsavoriness of the crime, replacing it with his “happy place”, but they also keep him from having to interact more than necessary with the unsavory sorts that Doc chooses to accompany him. In that first heist scene, a bank robbery in the middle of the afternoon in Atlanta, Baby drives the automatic weapon-toting Buddy (a grizzled Jon Hamm), his hottie girlfriend Darling (an ungrizzled Eiza Gonzalez) and Griff (a very grizzled Jon Bernthal). The romantic couple treats him fairly but the hardened Griff doesn’t like Baby’s ear buds and taunts him about being antisocial. Even after the success of the raid, Griff gives Baby grief as Doc counts out the money. It shows us how dangerous Baby's world is, with 'friends' who could turn into foes at any moment.

Jon Bernthal with Elgort in BABY DRIVER.
Bernthal is great in this small part, and he's proven to be an actor who can play anything. He was wonderfully smarmy as Ewan McGregor’s agent in Roman Polanski’s THE GHOST WRITER and both likable and threatening in his years on THE WALKING DEAD. Here, he’s in wild-eyed asshole mode and he’s very scary. It’s a shame that he is only around for that first robbery, but then Doc boasts about not using the same guys all the time. (Famous last words, Doc.)

Baby feels buoyed as he has but one heist left on his contract, and as he goes to retrieve coffee for his colleagues, he literally dances all the way to the coffee shop and back. And as if that isn’t a clever enough conceit for Wright to write, which makes us all fall in love with the lanky, loose-limbed youth, Wright even shoots it all in one long take. The choreography is incredible, not only from Elgort (trained by Ryan Heffington) but by Wright’s cameraman Bill Pope. It's fluid, whimsical and one of 2017's best scenes. And even though Baby may think he’s about to dance out of the trade, we know better from having seen how these things play out in gangster films. Of course Doc will never let him go. 

Lily James as Debora (not Debra) in BABY DRIVER.
The naïve Baby is so open to the whole new world that he thinks is in front of him that he falls instantly in love with the gorgeous waitress at the diner he frequents. Her name is Debora (played by Lily James, perhaps the world’s best ingénue these days) and when he hears her sing and chats her up about the music, he’s smitten like a kitten. The two young stars have genuine chemistry here and what could be an ooey-gooey relationship becomes truly charming as it is both sexy but poignant. They're both unhappy people who are looking for better horizons. (What is it with diner waitresses in these things? Is slinging hash that awful?)

Of course, the next heist will create all kinds of problems for Baby as he’s saddled with chauffeuring around Bats (Jamie Foxx) who is either bat-shit crazy or the man on the planet with the biggest chip on his shoulder. Foxx is both fierce and funny, subtly seething through his entire performance. He gives an amazing villain performance in BABY DRIVER and his growing irritation at how one of his heist colleagues has mistaken his request for Michael Myers Halloween masks to hide their identities for the job got misinterpreted for the actor Mike Myers is one of the funniest bits in the film. Watching three robbers run amok with Austin Powers masks is a stitch the entire sequence. And again, the gag works on a couple of levels as Wright as makes it funny in situ as well as reminds us of the fact that his film is also about moviemaking.

Jamie Foxx doesn't like the Mike Myers masks in BABY DRIVER.
Bats ends up killing one of his doofus sidekicks along the way and this creates further consternation for Baby. Now, he’s an accessory to murder, and is even tasked with getting rid of the body. (He takes it to an auto junk yard where the vehicle and the body are crushed into a metallic cube.) His dancing joy turns into a need to run and as his professional life seeps into his personal life when Doc coerces him into staying by threatening Debora. Spacey can always summon up that deadpan menace he's done so brilliantly in everything from SEVEN to HOUSE OF CARDS. And even while wearing nerd glasses and a frumpy suit, the acclaimed actor manages to make us fear every word that he utters.

This could have been a rather short film, a thriller clocking in at just over the 90-minute mark is often the norm, but Wright has different things in mind here, preferring to deepen the crime genre, even if he's essentially spoofing it. Thus, Wright ensures his script spends a lot of time developing character. Such efforts deepen the narrative of this well-trod territory, and that’s why late in the game he expands upon the characters of Buddy and Darling. They return for a new robbery, and Wright lets us get to understand them more before that climatic heist. Gonzales stole every scene she had on FROM DUSK TILL DAWN: THE SERIES and as a robber here she comes close to stealing her final scenes with her alternatingly coy and exasperated reactions to what's going on around her. She’s the real deal too, and here's hoping Hollywood continues to let her flourish.

Kevin Spacey doles out the dough as Doc in BABY DRIVER.
Hamm’s Buddy is revealed to be a Wall Street crook who turned to a more obvious life of crime after being caught stealing from clients, and the Emmy award-winning actor manages to convey both the posh suit he once was as well as the dark hood he is now. Sometimes simultaneously. In the climax, his character turns into the main villain and a bit of a psychopath. We never quite believe Buddy is that nuts, and that may be how Wright intended it, but it’s funny because the accomplished Hamm rendered more menace staring quietly in MAD MEN than he does here shouting profanities at Baby in their final showdown. The finale almost needs the return of Bernthal's Griff.

What makes BABY DRIVER such a kick, even if it feels quite familiar, is that Wright applies himself wholly to enlivening every moment of his endeavor. He edits almost all of Baby’s movements and gestures to the soundtrack. Wright employs the music as underscore and in situation. Why, this clever creator even times the subtitles of conversations between Baby and Joseph (C.J. Jones), his deaf and soulful step-dad, to be humorous. How so? Watch how the delay of the words, waiting for an expression to be made by the actors, gives it all the more time to be funny. Comedy is timing after all.  

Eiza Gonzalez and Jon Hamm shoot 'em up in BABY DRIVER.
And Wright wrings pathos out of places that are often quite unexpected. He could've just written Debora as “the girl.” Often, having a beautiful damsel in distress is enough in things like this, but Wright ensures that the character is three-dimensional and James gives a sly and winning performance that works on many levels. One of the best scenes she has is when Baby is forced to stop at the diner with bad company in tow and Bats ends up threatening to kill her. It’s an awful tense moment for sure, but the crux of the scene is in both Baby's humiliation at her seeing his worlds blend together, and in her mourning at seeing her dreams crash and burn. It’s also the sign of a greatness when a comedy director can be that serious and Wright is all that.

BABY DRIVER plays like an awesome rollercoaster ride. It’s reminiscent of other coasters you’ve been on before, but it’s executed with better twists, savvier turns, and deeper emotions. Here, we’re strapped into that car with Baby and his skills behind the wheel raise our pulse. But more importantly, Wright gets our blood pumping by creating vivid characters that we're invested in and care about. He's also managed to make this into something of a musical really. We’re grooving along with Baby as he shimmies, shakes, and coco-pop’s through life, totally in tune with his playlist and fearing that this all could be his last dance. Wow, who knew that Wright could be Bob Fosse as well as Blake Edwards?

2 comments:

  1. Thanks, Don! I always enjoy your reviews over at Every Movie Has A Lesson!

    ReplyDelete