There’s this dog my housemate owns. His name is Charlie, and he’s really a lovely pet. He’s sweet, fluffy, nothing but good intentions. He also has the capacity to be the most annoying Golden Retriever this side of California.
Every time I go to do laundry, there he is. He bounces up to me with a soggy, half-torn chew toy in his mouth, panting expectantly, eyes wide. Clearly, there’s nothing more he’d like than for me to take it, and nothing more I’d like than to take it, except for the small matter of him not letting go of the damn toy, no matter how long I stand there as he whines. It makes every laundry trip an exhibition of existential depression as I have to confront Charlie, who is trying so hard to do one thing and failing, making everyone around him either exasperated or uncomfortable.
Seeing Baby Driver is a lot like visiting Charlie.
That may sound harsh, but consider the first ten or so minutes of the film. We open on Ansel Elgort as Baby, lip syncing and tapping his car to the beat of “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion as his partners in crime (including Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, and a woman not named Jon) rob a bank. The intended tone is clear as Elgort uses a water bottle as a microphone and turns on his windshield wipers in time to the song, playfully shrugging off the serious connotations of the bank robbery. Soon, his cohorts rejoin him, and the scene seamlessly transitions to a high-speed car chase, “Bellbottoms” continuing to play and drive the scene as Baby pulls off the perfunctory stunt work. It’s an impressive, energetic piece of filmmaking that could not be more eager to please. So why do I leave it so nonplussed? Not displeased, mind you, just—confused at my own non-reaction?
Much of it has to do with everything underneath this aggressive style. The action, on its own, music aside, is well made yet rote. There are few moments or stunts in Baby Driver that we have not all seen many times before in crime films of its ilk. It checks boxes and nothing more. Similarly, the story has few character moments that cannot be foreseen from a mile away, and some of those few are only unpredictable due to their ridiculous implausibility. (See: Kevin Spacey’s out of character heel turn near the end.) There are many surface level character ticks and quirks—such as Baby’s need to record and make musical remixes of his conversations—that convince us a novel story is being told with one hand while putting on the same old, same old show with the other, trading aesthetics for substance.
Now, predictability is not a deal-breaker in a movie. If the story is well constructed enough, or the characters are interesting enough, it doesn’t matter. I will defend Titanic as a fun, dumb, mainstream popcorn film to my dying breath, but regardless of what you thought of it, the Titanic sinking wasn’t a shock, was it? It still found a wide audience and managed to be compelling because it allowed them to connect with the characters. Baby Driver’s cast does not allow for this saving grace, despite an irregular smattering of clever lines and moments. The actors, all of them, do very well by the material. Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm in particular are a lot of fun. Yet the main characters as they are written cannot carry a film. Baby is just a collection of ticks and quirks with no real backstory or motivation, other than “he had an accident,” “he creepily likes the waitress who reminds him of his mom,” and “he wants to get out of ‘the life.’” Oh wait! There is a literal montage of people testifying to his goodness at the end of the film. Great. I take it all back.
His Oedipal love interest (who looks oddly similar to Mädchen Amick from Twin Peaks) is not much better, as she seems tailor-made by the writer to be the perfect soulmate for Baby. In their very first conversation, she says she dreams of driving off into the sunset with a car she can’t afford listening to music, or something to that effect. Their romance is mostly fleshed out in terms of music taste, not actual character (there we go with aesthetics over substance again). Still, not to sound like a broken record, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm’s characters are more interesting, and played well. I only wish they were allowed to carry the film more, rather than being relegated to simple foils for Baby’s bland-do-good-ery.
I could go on and talk about how the film drags in the second act (mostly due to an assumed empathy with the main characters that just isn’t there), but I think you get the picture. Despite the craft, despite the talent of everyone involved, Baby Driver just didn’t click for me. It wasn’t just a “popcorn film”—it also failed as a popcorn film because I never truly cared about the characters. Without that, it all amounted to a vaguely pleasant, vaguely interesting hour and 53 minutes that did not affect me in the slightest.
And if you liked it? Great! I mean it. Edgar Wright is a wonderful filmmaker and I’m glad to see him get his props wherever he can. I just found Baby Driver to be the least interesting work in his filmography, and am a little tired of the “well-made but nothing new” trend in Hollywood.
Speaking of which, quick sidenote…
I saw Spiderman: Homecoming the same week, with a very similar yet very different reaction. I mentioned how I think Baby Driver does nothing new within its genre, but I found Spiderman actually did quite a bit new. The writing was uncharacteristically clever and funny. There were twists I never saw coming. Michael Keaton and Tom Holland were great. There are people out there calling this one of the best superhero movies in recent memory, and they’re justified in doing so. And yet…
It was something that I could only appreciate at a distance. I found myself thinking “this is funny” more than actually laughing. It didn’t thrill me, it piqued my curiosity. And I understand that this, more so than Baby Driver (which I feel rather justified about), is definitely a “me problem.” Yet I found myself thinking of Baby Driver again. Baby Driver is, in pure intellectual-property or branding terms, an entirely original film, but its story is the definition of rote; in direct contrast, here we have Spiderman: Homecoming, a rather original movie trapped in the confines of the Marvel-cinematic-universe-assembly-line.
Despite these differences, both left me with an empty feeling as I left the theater. Was the problem with the movies, the industry, or most disturbingly, myself? I’m not an old guy. I’m 21. I don’t have the right to be old and jaded yet. So why do I feel so much more developed than these movies that are, supposedly, aimed at just my demographic? There’s an unnerving trend in mainstream movies recently, a forced energy, a forced enthusiasm, a forced adolescence that commands you to sink to the movie’s level or leave the theater. Ignore that this is the third Spiderman series in 15 years. Ignore that Baby Driver cribs so heavily from its influences with little to no additions of substance. Shut up and enjoy the movie. I personally liked La La Land quite a bit, but it had a similarly strained smile on its youth. Tomorrowland had a forced feeling as well, shouting through gritted teeth with its blunt, joyless delivery of the message “BE OPTIMISTIC, DAMMIT.” In this disillusioned era, movies are trying harder than ever to get away from that cynicism, to be sincere escapist entertainment. Right now, though? That feels like the most cynical move of all.
I can’t give Baby Driver what it wants. I can’t give Spiderman what it wants.
Why the hell am I talking about movies like sad puppies?
Since when did movies start demanding enjoyment?