- By Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
For 20 years, director Edgar Wright had been thinking about a heist movie concerning a getaway driver who must (MUST) listen to the right song while driving. The result is the enjoyable confection “Baby Driver” (named after a Simon & Garfunkel tune), which made its world premiere at South by Southwest in March and now opens in theaters.
The 20 years bit is important. From the opening chase — set to a song so egregiously mid-1990s-college-radio that I will be amazed if anyone younger than 39 or older than 50 will even be able to hear it, let alone recognize it — to the filmic shoutouts to “Wild at Heart,” “Heat” and pretty much anything that Quentin Tarantino touched, “Baby Driver” is the most movie-made-by-a-guy-born-in-1974 you are likely to see in a good long time.
The punchline is that star Ansel Elgort was born in 1994, a good six months before that opening number was released in stores.
Elgort, complete with an almost-Elvis accent (the movie’s set in Atlanta), plays the titular character, a getaway driver nicknamed Baby who wears earbuds all the time, various stolen iPods playing a never-ending stream of music, the better to both dial down the tinnitus that he got in a family-destroying car accident as a kid and provide the soundtrack for everything in his life. Everyone knew that guy or gal (or was that guy or gal), the one who didn’t say much and was content to live in his or her own soundtracked world.
Baby is that guy. He lives with his deaf stepfather (CJ Jones), dances around to any one of the hundreds of LPs he has in his apartment and futzes with recordings and samplers and cheap keyboards for fun.
Kudos to Wright for understanding that serious, lunatic music nerds are fond of both vinyl and digital, and props to the costumers who slyly reference the fact that Elgort was long rumored to play a young version of that other fictional need-for-speed outlaw, Han Solo.
Baby also happens to be the best at what he does, and his wheelman abilities have meant that the crews run by crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey, just the right amount) have been successfully hitting banks left and right. Baby is the only constant in those crews, a good-luck charm Doc is reluctant to get rid of.
Things get a bit hairy when Baby falls for Deborah (Lily James, whose accent needs work), a waitress who happens to work at his mom’s old diner. This does not sit too well with Baby’s cartoonish fellow crooks: Griff (Jon Bernthal), Buddy (Jon Hamm, sporting tough-guy hair that’s somewhere between Paul Muni and Macklemore) and Buddy’s partner Darling (Eiza Gonzalez).
There’s also the criminal (Jamie Foxx) who maybe doesn’t entirely trust Baby. There’s the proverbial One Last Job. There is the Doomed Romance. There is the Big Shootout.
And there are car chases, lots of them, all perfectly cut to the diegetic music playing in Baby’s ears. It’s the best car movie since whichever was the least cartoonish “Fast and the Furious.” Very little looks and feels digital (which, again, is awfully ’90s of Wright).
Like all of Wright’s movies, “Baby Driver” is none too deep. It’s also the first movie in decades that he wrote and directed himself, so the vibe is slightly different than the Cornetto series he made with longtime creative partner Simon Pegg.
But if anything, Wright retains and expands on his ability to make very specific musical references work universally (the born-in-1970 Sisters of Mercy obsessive in “The World’s End,” the amazing Stone Roses joke in “Shaun of the Dead”).
From Beck and Young MC to Carla Thomas and T. Rex (or as Baby calls them, “Trex”), “Baby Driver” is a pleasant but slight ode to those who need a stream of tunes in their heads, everywhere, all the time, and a cinematic high-five to the movies that made Wright the absurdly talented music-n-film dork he is today.