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Director Edgar Wright’s 2004 “Shaun of the Dead” was one of the most auspicious and inspired debuts in recent memory. A genuinely original riff on an exhausted genre, the movie told of the zombie apocalypse through the eyes of two Rosencrantz and Guildenstern characters so oblivious it took a while for them to even notice that the world around them was coming to an end. Hilariously enough, the grand escape plan shared by these emotionally stunted slackers was to seek refuge at the same neighborhood pub they go to every other night of the week.
“Shaun” was a wise and at times cutting portrait of a certain type of Gen X male who hides behind pop culture detritus in a painfully prolonged adolescence. Alas, Wright has spent every movie since doing exactly that. His latest, "Baby Driver," is no exception.
A finely engineered chase picture propelled by the director's brand of kitschy kineticism, "Baby Driver" is an amusement park ride of a movie with an antiseptic sheen. Not much feels like it's at stake during these two admittedly zippy hours. For director of such awesome technical proficiency, Wright demonstrates with every precision-tooled edit that he knows how to make a movie, but he can't seem to convey a compelling reason why. The films too often feel to me like stunted exercises in arrested development.
Wright's “Hot Fuzz” (2007) started off as a smartly made buddy-cop spoof and eventually became indistinguishable from the bloated action pictures it was attempting to parody. The noxious “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010) was an unpleasant ode to nerd culture entitlement that was everything people say they hate about millennials but had the bad timing to be released a few years before everybody started complaining about millennials all the time. His most recent film, 2013’s “The World’s End” was his most disappointing yet, re-teaming with his “Shaun of the Dead” stars and co-writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for a movie that begins with friends pushing 40 and realizing they’re stuck in a juvenile rut. Then they end up fighting robots from outer space.
“Baby Driver” is Wright’s most entertaining effort since “Shaun of the Dead,” probably because he flat out admits in the title it’s about an infant. Well, our driver (named Baby) isn’t technically a child — but, as played by teen idol Ansel Elgort, he’s a dewy-eyed innocent apparently incapable of even thinking impure thoughts. Baby suffers from tinnitus stemming from a childhood car crash, and he drowns out the drone through omnipresent earbuds, attached to one of the wide variety of iPods he carries with him wherever he goes.
So for all intents and purposes it’s a musical, with our main character constantly shuffling his thumbs to find the appropriate song for the occasion and Wright’s patented ants-in-your-pants editing, cutting on the beats. Baby’s deep in debt to a local crime boss played by Kevin Spacey, and he’s working it off by driving getaway cars with the flair of Gene Kelly on the freeway. “Mozart in a go-kart,” Spacey calls him, and the endlessly inventive chase sequences swerve from surprise to delight. Indeed, the filmmaker seems happiest when orchestrating automotive mayhem to a playlist of his favorite songs.
Unfortunately we have to have some semblance of a plot, so Spacey’s crackerjack heist crew gets saddled with Jamie Foxx’s sneering, trigger-happy psychopath, injecting some much-needed menace into a movie that’s been thus far way too cloyingly cute. Elgort’s chaste flirtation with an angelic diner waitress played by Lily James is so sugary I was wishing for an insulin shot, but the movie gets more grounded and involving as things start to go sour for our gang. There’s an especially lively warehouse shootout (amusingly scored to “Tequila”) that plays like a rebuke to the sluggish gun fetishism of this past spring’s dire critical darling “Free Fire.”
The actors are playing more types than characters. Spacey in particular can pull this kind of thing off in his sleep, and he’s still pretty good at it. The one surprising standout is Jon Hamm, playing a dissolute, cokehead stockbroker gone to seed. Not a lot of actors can pull off being intimidating while drinking coffee in slow motion to the tune of a Barry White sex jam, but based on his work here the former Don Draper could have a considerable career as a big-screen heavy.
“Baby Driver” is already being heralded as the second coming in certain fanboy circles, where Wright’s meta-movie references and affable public appearances have earned him a “one of us” kind of geek cred. I found the movie’s slick, shiny surfaces entertaining to a point but once again wish this frustrating filmmaker would go as deep as his debut. He’s made enough movies about babies. Maybe the reason Hamm’s performance stands out so much is that he’s the first character in an Edgar Wright film who’s an actual adult.