In the serious comedies of writer-director Edgar Wright, genre is putty, and he loves confounding us with the shapes he creates. As he proved in his breakthrough—and still probably his best film, though I have doubts as I type this—“Shaun of the Dead,” few contemporary directors can shift styles as fluidly, suddenly and completely as Wright. “Shaun” began as a deadpan zombie parody and became a frightening zombie horror film, full stop.
“Baby Driver,” his imperfect but intensely likable new feature, maintains a similar generic freedom as it skids from too-cool action-comedy to poignant character study to bombastic thriller to outlaw romance, all of it anchored by a carefully curated soundtrack. Because above all of these categories, “Baby Driver” is most transcendently a music movie, as cultish and precise in its pop selections as Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim Versus the World.”
In “Baby Driver,” it’s Ansel Elgort versus the world. The millennial heartthrob plays Baby, who, thanks to a traumatic backstory, drives getaway cars for Doc, a strong-arming Atlanta crime boss expertly (and effortlessly) played by Kevin Spacey. Like the laconic wheelmen of cinema’s past—Ryan O’Neal in “The Driver,” Ryan Gosling in “Drive”—Baby doesn’t say much, partly because he’s constantly listening to music through earbuds and a collection of mood-tailored iPods.
Music is both his trump card and crutch, his salve and escape. Baby has had permanent tinnitus since suffering a tragic car accident as a child, and the tunes block out the tones. He’s a driver of superhuman skill and dexterity, as the movie’s thrilling opening sequence reveals, but he’s also a little OCD and a little Asperger’s-y, refusing to touch the accelerator until the right song is cued up just so. This irks the traditional, heavily tatted and frankly one-dimensional baddies that pull off Doc’s crimes—Jamie Foxx’s “Bats,” Jon Hamm’s “Buddy”—and it’s only a matter of time until the morally compromised Baby winds up on the wrong side of their gun barrels.
The final third of “Baby Driver” succumbs to silly action-movie overkill. But it remains a film of captivating sound, if only pedestrian fury. Everything from gunshots to windshield wipers to screeching tires moves to the rhythms emanating from Baby’s devices, and what a mix it is. We hear Beck and The Damned and The Commodores and T. Rex and Jonathan Richman and Dave Brubeck and Young MC and Queen; Simon & Garfunkel’s “Baby Driver” plays during the credits. The movie is like plugging into the most eclectic radio station in America for a couple of ear-pleasing hours.
Wright’s visuals complement his audio mastery. Whether behind the wheel of a variety of jacked cars or on foot, each urban landscape becomes an obstacle course our hero must deftly navigate, from parking garages to bustling streets to mall interiors, as he evades criminal psychopaths, spooked pedestrians and hopeless police officers alike. “Baby Driver” is the rare non-dance film that features a choreography credit, and it shows.
If the narrative itself leaves you a bit hollow, the dynamism of the direction and sound design are everything but. No matter what you listen to, you’ll want to buy this soundtrack.
“Baby Driver” opens today, June 28, at most area theaters.