Most directors don’t pay attention to the past very much. Those that do make borrowing from the past their entire shtick. They want to be congratulated for remembering an obscure crime film from 1978.
It’s wonderful to have a filmmaker acknowledge the things he loved in his youth while trying to create something new to engage the next generation. That’s what Baby Driver is. Something for director Edgar Wright to share his passions with an audience.
Everything about Baby Driver is an homage to new Hollywood gangster films. Everything in this film may be a reference to something else. But that’s not the point. The point is that it feels like something new. Edgar Wright didn’t just copy movies like The Long Good Friday or The Driver. He used those as a starting point to craft something new.
Let’s start with the titular character. Baby (we don’t learn his real name until the very end) is a parody of the Melville “Samorai” character. He barely speaks, he’s obsessed with old technology, he lives a modest lifestyle with his adoptive father, and he’s constantly listening to music to drown out his tinnitus. He looks like any twenty something you would find in a large city while you’re shaking your head and wondering how he’ll amount to anything.
Baby’s been recruited to a be a getaway driver by Doc (Kevin Spacey) who puts together quick thefts. Baby is forced to go along with it because he owes Doc a lot of money for stealing one of his cars. But Baby is more interested in recording conversations and making electronic music from them. He doesn’t have dreams of something more, exactly. He just wants to get away from everything.
He may get his wish with Debora (Lily James), a diner waitress who takes a liking to him. But Doc hires a new crew member, Bats (Jamie Foxx), who suspects Baby doesn’t have his heart in the job. Buddy (Jon Hamm), a longtime…buddy of Baby, is also growing more distant from him.
What follows are the usual Heat inspired shootouts. But that’s not the main point of the film. The point is how Wright uses this familiar material to entice the audience. It would be impossible to identify every reference the film makes, mostly because it’s something that feels natural for the characters. They’re not talking like Hollywood gangsters for the sake of talking like Hollywood gangsters. They want to fit in.
One scene has Doc outlining his latest heist with a map. We don’t hear him talk, though. We only hear Baby’s music as he nods along. Only after Bats confronts Baby for his inattentiveness do we hear the plan. Baby recites it back with a bored tone as Doc shrugs. Normally this would be a pivotal scene in a heist movie. Wright’s technique isn’t even new. But Baby’s detachment from the scene says a lot about the tone of the film. It’s not pleased with itself but still feels like the smartest thing in the room.
Parody has long been a lost art. Most think that making something similar to another popular thing is enough to count as a joke. But that’s just a reminder of something that once happened. Even Airplane! knew that it had to be something that used familiarity as a starting point rather than an end. Baby Driver is obsessed with reminding us of things that happened in the past, but it’s used as a commentary on Baby’s world. I don’t know anyone who makes physical cassettes anymore or even people who literally hide cash under the floor. Baby does as an escape from his world. He wants to reconnect to the time his mother was still alive and singing to him.
The Atlanta setting also works for the film. Normally I’m on Truffaut’s side when it comes to films made in Atlanta, “A person can’t watch a film made in their house, because they’ll spend all their time looking at the wallpaper.” But Atlanta brings a level of strangeness yet familiarity. I don’t know why Baby would select to be a driver for Goodfellas (an Italian restaurant down the street from Georgia Tech). Even for people who live in the city, it’s an odd choice. One scene late in the film has Baby running through the Peachtree Center mall food court as police chase him, yelling about the shootout. It’s a nice bit of trivia for residents, but the focus is on Baby’s desperate running.
I also liked Lily James. She’s probably the weakest character in the film, but James plays the “dream girl” perfectly. Baby notices her when she starts singing his name in the diner. She’s a symbol for him – a sort of Freudian reminder of his young mother. And I did care about her and Baby and was shocked when Bats went into the diner and started threatening her. And I also wanted to know if they would have a happy ending.
But the best part of the film was Foxx’s Bats. He lives up to his name as a rambling lunatic and the perfect foil to Baby. Foxx doesn’t care about anything except the now. Whereas Baby wants to blend in the background, Bats wants to be the center of attention. His statements are stupid, (“He’s a loony, just like his tunes,” he says to describe Baby) but is nevertheless intimidating. Foxx’s performance blends all of his roles together, from his earlier comedic ones to his serious work.
Baby Driver is an excellent, subtle parody. It becomes funnier if you know a lot about the conventions of the genre but still works as a highly effective action film in its own right. Edgar Wright is a very talented director whose talent becomes more apparent as he adds to his filmography. Baby Driver is something fewer and fewer films have these days – a reward for audience who know how to pay attention.