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The CHIRP Blog

Kevin Fullam writesThe Fourth Wall: Baby Driver

Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's weekly e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the action heist movie Baby Driver.

This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.

Clarence:

Baby Driver (written and directed by Edgar Wright) is the story of Baby (played by Ansel Elgort), a young man who knows two things – music and driving cars. He’s exceptional at the latter, a talent that results in him working for a crime boss (Kevin Spacey) who uses him to make sure his crews make a clean get-away from their heists.

Using his MP3 player to create a soundtrack for his life, Baby thinks he’s on the way to finishing his criminal obligations. But things start to go off the rails when he meets Debora, a waitress who shares his longing for the freedom of the open road. Before they can ride off into the sunset, they’ll need to figure out how to get away from the danger posed by Baby’s job and his co-workers.

I liked this movie a lot. It was just a great way to spend a couple of hours in a movie theater. There are times when I leave a theater more tired than when I came in due to boredom or frustration with what I just watched. Not this time. This movie gave me energy instead of taking it from me.

The action sequences are fluid and fast. The soundtrack is an expertly-curated mix of ‘50s-‘70s Rock. The sound design is fantastic, especially in how it merges the music to the action and even the thoughts in Baby’s head. It’s got a kind of blissful romance that’s not featured in movies much anymore. And I liked that I truly did not know how the story was going to end.

The performances (including co-starring roles from Jamie Foxx, John Hamm, and Eiza González) are all excellent. Everyone understands the kind of movie they’re in and plays their roles just right. I’m hoping I never come across one of the inevitable “Here’s 10 Mistakes in Baby Driver” Internet essays that are sure to appear. This is a kind of story I feel doesn’t need to be dissected for realism.

The movie seems to be doing well by word of mouth. My first question to you, Kevin - Is there such a thing as a “Summertime Flick?” I would like to think this is a kind of movie that would be great regardless of the season, but does running it during the summer add anything, or is that just an outdated marketing device?

I also want to highlight Elgort’s performance in the lead role. One thing I can say about Baby that I haven’t thought about a movie character in a while – he’s cool. Any number of graduate school theses have been written about what makes someone or something cool. But like James Dean or early Elvis Presley, you know it when you see it, especially in the movies. Who are the coolest actors you’ve seen on the silver screen?

Kevin:

Hmm. Looks like we might have a classic Siskel vs. Ebert-esque divide here?

Let's start with what worked for me: the car chases and the music. Top-notch on both accounts -- and I'm someone for whom car chases hold no particular appeal. (To date, I've never seen any of the Fast & Furious films, nor do I "live my life a quarter-mile at a time.") Baby's driving skills were mesmerizing, the action early on was frenetic, and the combo of racing and beats brought back memories of the landmark Out Run* racing game for this scribe. 

(* First-ever arcade game where players could choose their background music! Also, Out Run is 31 years old. Yeesh.)

So, what didn't work for yours truly? Er... everything else. I'm not much of a fan of popcorn movies these days, though I do appreciate one from time to time; I enjoyed Gravity and was dialed in for the entirety of Fury Road. However, even within these parameters and lowered expectations, Baby Driver left me with another serious dent in my allegiance to Rotten Tomatoes scores (BD's current mark: 97%). 

I've been scratching my head, trying to figure out what critics saw in this film. The supporting cast (especially Spacey) seemed to be on auto-pilot, and I'm wondering whether the reason that Baby doesn't say or emote much by design is that Elgort simply isn't a great actor? I couldn't tell. On top of that, every interaction between Baby and his main squeeze Debora (facilitated by a generic Meet Cute) left me hoping there was another car chase just around the corner. The line "heading west in a car I can't afford, with a plan I don't have" was used not once but twice during their flirtations. Who talks like this?

Even so, I was willing to give Baby Driver a two-star "throwaway action film" rating until the second hour. [SPOILER ALERT] Everything goes south for me after the big shootout with the cops providing weapons for the gang's would-be final score. Uh, how did Baby and Jon Hamm escape a diner flooded with police? And this was after Hamm was shot at point-blank range and left for dead? Then, after Baby and Debora somehow survive a parking garage* road-rage battle that must've alerted half the city, the next scene has the two of them quietly driving out of town the next morning? (OK, he's eventually arrested, but still...)

[* Have you ever been to a parking garage that didn't have either a human attendant, or one of those machines where you need to take a card and wait for a lever to pop up? Those must not exist in Atlanta. Here, getaway cars race in unimpeded, with no one at a booth to even lift an eyebrow.]

I know you said that we shouldn't dissect movies like this, but... everyone has their limits, right? It's bad enough when a filmmaker goes to extreme lengths to show how a hero wiggles out of danger, no matter how improbable the method -- such as a red sports car that magically appears when Baby desperately needs a getaway ride. It's quite another when this sort of peril is simply handwaved and they head to the next scene sans explanation. 

SCENE 24: Clarence grabs Kevin's parachute, yells "Thanks for dropping by!" and shoves Kevin out of the plane.

SCENE 25: Kevin bites into a cheeseburger while dining at a greasy spoon. Sporting a few cuts on his face, with his arm in a sling, he mutters "I shall have my revenge, Mr. Ewing..."

It's sort of an admission from the filmmakers that "we can't figure out any solution the audience would remotely buy, so it's best to say nothing and keep going." 

As far as other cool characters in cinema? Samuel L. Jackson and John Travota in Pulp Fiction -- Sam's Jules Winnfield even explicitly gives instructions about "being cool" a la Fonzie during the film. Denzel Washington's Alonzo Harris in Training Day. Cool. Is Batman ever not cool, particularly when driving around in the Batmobile? Ditto with James Bond and any of his super-fancy sports cars? As for ladies who exude Serious Coolness, I'm going with Anne Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate, Cate Blanchett's Carol from Carol, and Anne Hathaway's Catwoman from The Dark Knight Rises. Loads of confidence, loads of coolness.

So, now that I've thoroughly unloaded on Baby Driver with both barrels, I'm perfectly willing to hear the rebuttal about how unfair I'm being! You gave this movie a pass with regards to believability -- I don't agree with you, but I respect your point of view. My question is, where do you draw the line? Are there action films in the past where you felt the implausibility detracted from your enjoyment? 

Clarence:

Most definitely. For me, pretty much any Arnold Schwarzenegger movie qualifies, even the well-regarded ones. So many of them are built around the premise of "Look at Ah-nold and his muscles and his limited vocabulary." I avoid the kind of movies where the point is to further a persona or franchise instead of tell a good story.

But implausibility in movies doesn't matter much to me. The Wizard of Oz isn't the least bit plausible, and it's one of my all-time favorites. I think internal consistency is what's important. Mid-movie changes in style or logic merely to cover up a lack of filmmaking skill is as old as the film business, and it's never a good thing.

You're right about a lot of things regarding Baby Driver. Much of the dialogue is hokey. The actors certainly aren't being asked to interpret Shakespeare with their roles. And there are numerous question marks in the action. The plot points aren't even original. The love story is straight out of '60s teen rebellion B-pictures. Even the central premise is lifted from the Jason Statham franchise The Transporter

So why, I've been asking myself all week, did I get such a fundamental kick out of this movie? I've got two reasons. First, I just found out this movie's director is Edgar Wright, who I think is one of the better directors working today. He's best known for helming Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) along with the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead [2004], Hot Fuzz [2007], and The World's End [2013]). I think he's very good at breathing new life into old movie premises by deconstructing and adding distinct narrative twists to them.

The second reason came to me while I was looking at Baby Driver's soundtrack playlist. I think, at its heart, this movie is a song. I've got a pile of songs in my personal playlist that aren't that impressive if you analyze the lyrics, evaluate the chord structures, or listen closely to the quality of the playing. But the magical thing about music is how you can take a bunch of average bits and create wholes that are much more than the sums of the parts. Or not, as I've experienced millions of times while running away from music that doesn't speak to me.

I think this frame of mind applies to this movie. You're as likely to get a rock-solid narrative out of this film as you are to get clear meaning from "Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen or "Come Together" by The Beatles. For some songs (and movies, and paintings, and sculptures), it's the overall effect that counts*.

[*I believe this notion is responsible for the career of Chow Yun-fat, star of many Hong Kong drama and action films (Hard Boiled, City on Fire, A Better Tomorrow, The God of Gamblers) and someone I and millions of others consider The Coolest Actor In the World. Elgort’s performance came as close to approaching Chow's level of cool as any recent actor I can remember. "Cool" being a complex character equation involving Vocational Expertise, Emotional Vulnerability, Self-Containment, and Guts.]

I might be holding Baby Driver to a different standard of quality because of my conclusion. This is what got me thinking about the idea of Summer Flicks and Popcorn Movies. If I saw this movie in the dead of winter instead of a lovely summer afternoon, would I feel differently about it? I'd like to think not, but I wonder how much one's state of mind plays into it. As it is, this flick may not have grade-A ingredients, but it's got a wicked beat and it's easy to dance to. And that's good enough for me.

Am I making any sense here? Also, is there such a thing as an opposite of cool? It seems like any actor would have to have a certain amount of it, however small, to get roles. Can you think of anyone anyone who has made a living out of their lack of it?

Kevin: Lots to unpack here! I like it. 

First off, I completely agree with your notion that the whole of a song can be much greater than the sum of its parts. I can be drawn in by a melody/beat combo to such a degree that the lyrics are completely inconsequential. And there are loads of artists whom I simply can't listen to because the vocal timbre just doesn't agree with me. Music is all about inducing a physical reaction -- it's the first response we form before we're even aware of what's being said. Now with film... well, there's definitely some of that going on, but there's also a narrative hammering away as well? When one gets in the way of the other, that's a problem. It's also quite possible that there was a brilliant 90-minute version of Baby Driver somewhere in this 113-minute production, and by excising entire plot threads (especially the love interest), I wouldn't have had so much time to ponder the film's frustrating storyboard leaps. 

Hot Fuzz is the only film of Wright's that I've seen, and I found it surprisingly enjoyable -- it probably represents my limit as far as satire/farce? And its tongue was planted firmly in cheek for the duration, whereas Baby Driver had a much more serious tone. (Pushing this film towards farce would've let me give it a pass on its inconsistencies, but I likely would've mentally checked out earlier as well.)

There's a line that comedian Adam Carolla once used to describe the Fast & Furious films: "they're like a Twinkie -- you can't put it up against a piece of German strudel, but if you're in the mood for one, nothing else will do." It's quite possible the same line of thinking applies to Baby Driver. 

You asked earlier about the concept of Summertime Flicks, and I've been wondering about how much that still holds up today in the age of on-demand viewing? Part of the reason we generally don't see more cerebral fare during the summer is because studios tend to save those works for Oscar season, but also summer is synonymous with vacation -- especially for kids -- and who wants to take on the weight of the world during vacation? Enter fast cars, fistfights, and street justice. (Has there ever been a greater Summertime Flick than Raiders of the Lost Ark? I posit no. And Indiana Jones was cool.)

Rereading your earlier question, I realized you were asking about actors who were cool rather than characters. I'd still list Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta, and Denzel Washington, of course. Harrison Ford. Clint Eastwood. And while I don't pay much attention to his films, I have to admit that The Rock (aka Dwayne Johnson) is undeniably cool. 

But I would also say there have been lots of actors who've made a living by heading in the opposite direction! Woody Allen -- has there ever been anyone less cool? Rick Moranis. By and large, Dustin Hoffman does not exude coolness. On the female side... hmm. Sandra Bullock? Greta Gerwig tries to give off this vibe, but not with much success. In general, I think this is a very effective angle in terms of playing "everyman" characters that audiences can relate to... though Woody's sadsack nature wayyyyyy surpasses my limits here. 

Did you see the movie? Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!

 

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