I didn’t list Ansel Elgort in the title because Ansel Elgort is not the best thing about Baby Driver. The latest film from Edgar Wright—the film he made after his Ant-Man deal fell apart at Marvel—Baby Driver is slightly more plotty than films like John Wick and Free Fire, but it’s in the same action-heavy vein. Ansel Elgort stars as Baby, a not-talkative getaway driver who listens to music constantly and wears sunglasses inside. Baby listens to music because it drowns out the hum of his chronic tinnitus, left over from a childhood accident. It also gives Wright an excuse to aggressively set Baby Driver to music—some have dubbed this a musical. It isn’t, songs are not used to communicate information or advance plot, but this is a wildly fun use of sound in film.
In fact, if you’ve ever wondered, “What is sound mixing?” just watch Baby Driver. The sound mix is A++, with music fading in and out and ambient noise timed to match the beat of whatever song is currently on Baby’s iPod. Wright is a nose-to-tail filmmaker who uses every element to build his stories, and here he’s making the most of the fact that sound is 45% of your film-watching experience. The soundtrack is killer, and the way Wright utilizes it is brilliant. The confluence of music and action make Baby Driver immersive in a way 3D never can—your whole brain is engaged in processing the experience.
And the acting is good, too! Baby is part of a revolving door of criminals working for “Doc” (Kevin Spacey, obviously having fun), the mastermind behind their crimes. Baby might be the preternaturally gifted driver, but Doc is the one planning the heists. The fact that Doc never uses the same crew twice allows for fun cameos from the likes of Jon Bernthal and Flea, but the main crew is made of up Baby, “Buddy” (Jon Hamm) and his wife “Darling” (Eiza Gonzalez), and “Bats” (Jamie Foxx).
Hamm and Foxx steal the whole movie. Hamm gets a nice slow-burn arc that he delivers so easily you hardly notice how dark his character is getting, and Foxx hasn’t been this good since Django Unchained. Bats is off his rocker, either drug-addled or just plain nuts, it’s up to you. His volatility and deep paranoia set off a chain reaction that propels the plot into the third act, but Foxx never loses that charisma that makes him such a fun performer. Bats is a crazy bad guy, but you kinda like him anyway.
Unfortunately, they pretty well bury Elgort. Your mileage may vary, but Ansel Elgort just doesn’t work for me in this film. Physically, he does well with the action, especially a wild foot chase through downtown Atlanta. Thanks to his distinctive height, it’s easy to spot when Elgort is doing his own stunts, and Wright makes the most of his Gumby-legs and smooth dance moves (WATCH THIS AND THANK ME LATER).
But he doesn’t have the charm or presence to command the screen against Hamm, let alone Jamie Foxx operating at Peak Jamie Foxx. Baby doesn’t talk much, and he wears a cool jacket, all of which feels like a riff on Ryan Gosling’s anonymous Driver in Drive. But Gosling can get away with those too-cool-for-school performances because he is so engaging on his own, he doesn’t need to do much to get your attention. Elgort doesn’t have that quality—I keep thinking what this movie would be like with charisma jackpot Taron Egerton playing Baby—so this ends up being a classic “Table Performance”. He’s not taking anything off the table, but he’s not putting anything on it, either. He’s just at the table.
And there’s another issue we need to address, which is Edgar Wright’s disinterest in female characters. There are two women with names in Baby Driver, the aforementioned Darling, and Debbie (Lily James), a diner waitress Baby has a crush on. Both women give good performances, but neither has much to work with. Darling is arm candy, a prop for Buddy’s third-act turn, and Debbie is just a prize. Wright can make whatever movie he wants and he is not under orders do make a movie with a female lead, but even as a huge fan of his, it’s getting harder to ignore that he doesn’t invest in female characters. I love Edgar Wright movies but I’m starting to feel like they don’t love me back.
I still recommend Baby Driver, though. It’s fun and a cracking good heist flick, with a great summer soundtrack and eye-popping chase sequences. Wright is a filmmaker working on a very rarified plane, and his movies don’t look like anything else. He does what he does, and he does it very well. I wonder how long I’ll remain interested in what he does, but for now, Baby Driver is the sort of sleeper surprise this summer needs.