Saturday, July 1, 2017

BABY DRIVER - Drive it Like You Stole it

There are few things seemingly more dangerous in modern film culture than playing in familiar genre playgrounds without hiding behind genre language when trying for genuine emotion. Especially when you're as well-known for genre-savvy as someone like Edgar Wright.

Make no mistake, Wright is no stranger to genuine drama in his films, but he's always felt. . .let's say, comfortable in how he's been able to couch it within whatever previous context his films have used - especially in his non-adaptions. There's a lot to parse about the subtext of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End, but there's a feeling of safety when dealing with movies that are send-ups of zombie films, buddy cop actioners, or sci-fi invasion flicks.

Much like its title character, Baby Driver throws that caution to the winds to reach for something, and it may just end up being Wright's best movie for it.

The premise for Baby Driver could reductively be boiled down to "Michael Mann by way of Nicholas Sparks," but that would be. . .well, reductive and also missing the point. Wright has always been a "genre" filmmaker, but here he's taking a basic framework and injecting his own voice into it rather than playing a specific riff. Fans of Walter Hill and William Friedkin will be in familiar territory, but there's so much more going on.

Set in an exaggerated, pop-infused, almost dreamy vision of Atlanta, our story focuses on Baby, a young getaway driver for a bank-robbing crime boss who (all together now) has a heart of gold and is only "one last job" away from being able to get out of this life of crime. The twists on this familiar setup come early, however, visualized by his love of music in the opening heist. Left with tinnitus from a childhood accident, he escapes into the beat of the music, using his tunes to drown out the ringing tone in his head (as well as the accompanying traumatic memories). Music is how Baby expresses himself through his musical choices, and - while taking care of his deaf foster father - even uses recorded snippets of conversation to make his own mix tapes.

Like the Guardians of the Galaxy films, all of the film's music is diagetic, so we hear what Baby hears at any given time. Unlike just about any other film, however, Baby Driver is set to its own beat so exactly that gunshots during shootouts happen during deliberate musical moments. The "extended one-take shot to open the movie" that Wright is so fond of is choreographed like a dance number in a musical, and this isn't just a one-off. It is baked into the film, informing each and every editing choice and punctuating each cut to make them even more deliberate and assured than usual - which is saying something for a filmmaker like Wright.

Most of the first half of this film is used to set up the movie's various dynamics and relationships and goals, and in the hands of a less-accomplished director it might feel like wheel-spinning (I'm not sorry), but between the "Rodgers & Hammerstein Rob a Bank" language of the film, and the immediacy with which it invests a ludicrous amount of empathy into the title character, the film stays engaging. So by the time the wheels come off (still not sorry) most of the established dynamics, relationships, and goals in the second half, it feels like everything deliberately snaps into focus.

A lot of this is thanks to the work of an astounding cast. It's really hard to pick an MVP, given that Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx could easily work as heavies in their own movies but pair magnificently, and Kevin Spacey is playing maybe the "Kevin Spacey-est" role he's had in years but absolutely crushing it. Relative newcomer Ansel Elgort is asked to walk into a room with titans of the big and small screen and steal the scene out from under them AND HE FUCKING DOES. But Lily James (lately of Cinderella) does perhaps the most impressive work of the film, even as she underlies a continuing problem of Wright's as a filmmaker. Her waitress character Debora could easily be a sexy lamp goal for Baby (and isn't written as much more), but James charms the film out from under darn near everyone with a combination of dreamy optimism, determination, and surprising ability.

Like, there's a scene where she's playing off of Hamm, Foxx, Elgort, and Eliza Gonzalez and she has to play something like four warring emotional states under two different masks and it's just jaw-dropping. And she can sing.

I'm not one for the theory that great art can only come through adversity, but if getting burned by the studio system and walking off of a passion project like Ant-Man is what jump-started (ok, I'll stop) this film getting made this way with this group of people? Well, it's damned hard to argue with the results. Baby Driver is the work of a director who, after honing his craft in genre parody, has taken a high dive into deep and exciting new waters, creating his own exciting fusion of his influences to craft something uniquely his own. It's exciting, fresh, has a beating heart that it wears on its sleeve, and is pure joy to watch.

And yes - that soundtrack is, in fact, killer.

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