Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A baby-faced getaway driver

Baby Driver wants to be hard-bitten, but seems trapped by its sleek style.

Thanks to an error in judgment, Baby (the main character in the new thriller Baby Driver) drives getaway cars for a soft-spoken but ruthless Atlanta crime boss who's skilled at staging robberies. When I saw the trailer for director Edgar Wright's movie, I got excited. Maybe we could add something with real kick to the summer slag heap.

But Wright (Shaun of the Dead) has made a movie that's mostly froth, a crime fantasy posing as a thriller with hard-boiled performances from a cast that includes Kevin Spacey (as a no-nonsense criminal mastermind); Jamie Foxx (as a psychopathic thief); John Hamm (as an exiled Wall Street wheeler-dealer); and Eliza Gonzalez (as the girlfriend of Hamm's character).

None of these characters show much by way of originality; Spacey's performance feels like a bit of a reiteration. As is often the case, he's playing the smartest, meanest guy in the room. Hamm actually was scarier as a ruthless ad man in Mad Men. Here, you get the feeling that he's trying too hard to pull out all the stops.

If Wright wanted a baby-faced character to play Baby, he could have done no better than Ansel Elgort, who has the kind of face that registers boyish innocence. Elgort never loses our sympathy.

So here's the gimmick: Elgort's Baby carries multiple iPods, each loaded with music to fit whatever mood or pursuit in which he happens to find himself. Music also drowns out the hum of tinnitus from which he suffers, a malady acquired in a car accident in which, as a child, he lost his parents.

Baby is devoted to the memory of his late mother, a singer by trade. He's been raised by a foster parent (CJ Jones), an aging deaf man for whom the adult Baby has become chief caretaker.

A ton of music turns Baby Driver into a juke box of a movie featuring tunes from a variety of artists, spanning numerous pop styles. We're talking Blur, R.E.M, Barry White, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Queen and more. Baby lives behind a set of earphones.

Wright leavens the proceedings with romance. Baby falls for a waitress (Lily James). Baby indulges a cornball dream in which the two of them will hit the open road with nothing but music, each other and an endless horizon of new possibilities.

Naturally, Doc opposes Baby's departure from the group of rotating felons who carry out his intricate plans. Doc sees Baby as his good-luck charm. He won't let him go.

If you like car chases, you'll get your fill, but for me, even creatively handled car chases have diminishing returns. Here's another movie in which shifting gears becomes a metaphor for assertive expression.

Of all the performances, Foxx's proves the most unsettling. His character -- named Bats -- suggests real danger, as opposed to the kind of faux, pulpy menace everyone else exudes.

If you've seen movies by Quentin Tarantino or Nicolas Winding (Drive), you may find a glib familiarity in Wright's movie, a sense of amoral hipness that, like one of the tires in this film, seems to be losing tread from wear.

For all its attempts at juxtaposing Baby's sweet dreams with the hard-core aspirations of the movie's band of miscreants, Baby Driver has no more staying power than an air kiss. The longer it goes on, the more fleeting its fleetness becomes.

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