'Baby Driver': Film Review | SXSW 2017

Ansel Elgort takes the wheel in Edgar Wright's music-driven cops-and-robbers romance, co-starring Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm.

A movie-as-mixtape with few slots available for catch-your-breath downtempo tracks, Edgar Wright's rollicking Baby Driver is a Gone in 60 Seconds for the La La Land crowd, a True Romance that relishes the long wait before its young lovers can finally go on the lam. A crime-flick love story as Pop-conscious as Wright's earlier work but unironic about its romantic core, it will delight the director's fans but requires no film-geek certification; given smart marketing, it should connect easily with multiplex auds.

Though it makes the most of its top-shelf talent, slotting Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey smartly into familiar heist-film roles, the movie belongs to The Fault in Our Stars' and Divergent's young Ansel Elgort, whose title character ("Baby" is a code name, natch) is a gearbox prodigy who never drives a getaway car without first cueing up the appropriate tune. Though always aware of his surroundings, he rarely pulls earbuds out of his ears: The music drowns out chronic tinnitus, and gives Wright an opportunity to treat many sequences like music videos or musical set pieces, going so far as to sync gunshots to drum beats.

Baby lost his parents years ago, and somehow wound up indebted to Spacey's Doc, a criminal plotter much like Lawrence Tierney's character in Reservoir Dogs. Doc hires a different crew for every daring robbery he plans, but Baby is always the wheelman. As the story gets rolling, Baby owes Doc just one more job before his debt is paid. (Stop me if you've heard this one before.)

Baby's a fella of few words, but what syllables he manages to drawl melt the heart of a diner waitress, Debora (Lily James), who looks like she's just one rotten boyfriend away from a job at the Double R Diner in Twin Peaks. The two bond over their shared taste in music, and Baby soon decides he'll take the money he makes on his final job and whisk her off on a never-ending road trip. But Doc has different plans.

Baby, of course, is coerced out of his new retirement, forced to pull another job with Buddy (Hamm, whose name offers the first four letters of the adjective best describing his enthusiastically villainous performance), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) and the appropriately named Bats (Jamie Foxx, bringing some enjoyable loose-cannon danger to the crew). But this job starts to go sour during the planning phase, jeopardizing not just Baby's planned trip down Route 66 but the lives of his loved ones.

Wright's script goes through a lazy stretch as it contrives these complications, but genre conventions carry the pic past this rough patch, especially since, by this point, we're fully invested in the innocent love story that can't really begin until Baby gets out of trouble. In their scenes together, Elgort's still-unhardened features provide a blank wall upon which James' energetic projections of first love can fall; subtlety is neither needed nor desired in this courtship, and in fact, even the primary-color clothes spinning in a laundromat's washing machines conspire to celebrate the budding romance.

As for the action, Wright begins with a thrilling bit of car-chase audacity — check out that Three-Car(d) Monte involving identical Subarus! — only to rob his conscience-struck hero of his automotive superpower. Baby loses his groove when a security guard is killed in the film's second heist, and from here on, the first scene's rubber-burning elegance is replaced with high-octane unstoppability: Baby violently plows through obstacles he previously would have danced around, ditching one half-demolished auto for another when he must. The weight of the crimes he's forced to commit is coming down on him. But it never slows the movie, which cranks up everything from Queen to Young MC to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, always sure that Baby will eventually find the right road to love.

Production companies: MRC, Working Title, Big Talk Pictures
Distributor: TriStar
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez, Flea, Sky Ferreira, Lanny Joon
Director-screenwriter: Edgar Wright
Producers: Nira Park, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Executive producers: Edgar Wright, Rachael Prior, James Biddle, Adam Merims, Liza Chasin, Michelle Wright
Director of photography: Bill Pope
Production designer: Marcus Rowland
Costume designer: Courtney Hoffman
Editors: Paul Machliss, Jonathan Amos
Composer: Steven Price
Casting director: Francine Maisler
Venue: South by Southwest (Headliners)

112 minutes

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