Culture

In the Almost-Great Baby Driver, Hollywood Goes Asperger’s

Baby Driver (Photo: Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures)
The Beguiled is too cool for school, and The Last Knight loses its art amid all the explosions.

Lots of movies are manipulative, but Edgar Wright’s action-comedy Baby Driver defines the era by pampering its teenage audience.

Yet its most impressive moment invokes an obscure but cinematic icon: The hero nicknamed Baby (Ansel Elgort), an orphaned hipster who loves speed-racing and pop music and works for a crime boss as a getaway driver, loses the right lens of his sunglasses during a botched escape.

This odd, striking occurrence recalls Jean-Paul Belmondo’s sunglasses lens popping out at the crisis point of Breathless (1961), as did Warren Beatty’s in Bonnie & Clyde (1967) and Jack Nicholson’s in Chinatown (1974). No mere coincidence, the visual image connects Baby Driver to its cool-crime-movie lineage (film scholars can trace it back further to Sergei Eisenstein’s eyeglasses montage in Battleship Potemkin). Such insider references make Baby Driver a curious, coddling delight. Like his Monsters, Inc.–quoting protagonist, the only thing Wright loves more than movies is pop music, and the film’s overflow of these pop references proves he is a more talented and artistic manipulator than Quentin Tarantino.

For those who have desperately waited for morality to return to movies after Tarantino’s paradigm shift into nihilism, Baby Driver is almost it. But that’s exactly how it pampers. Wright’s evocation of cinematic history demonstrates the blinkered moral lookout that once defined the Baby Boomer generation — and now Millennials. The fears and scant hopes we feel today are personified in Baby, a hero on the Asperger’s scale, who shades himself from the world and plugs earbuds into his head, feeding the energy of pop songs into his alienated existence.

Wright is also a satirist, as seen in his previous films Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which similarly used pop references to define his characters’ moral choices. The opening car chase here is a spectacular display of sharp editing and speedway hijinks that flip Walter Hill’s existential action-noir The Driver (1978) into a dangerous daytime parade. After this hyper-kinetic showing-off, Wright mocks Tarantino’s love of sadism by providing Baby with a sentimental motive: He falls for the orphaned waitress Debora (Lily James). Their love story is scored to Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y,” Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run,” and Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts,” each trenchantly expressing moments of romance, excitement, and fear.

While Baby Driver’s crime plot is routine (riffing on The Usual Suspects), Wright’s movie and song references should return audiences to the principles that post-Tarantino culture has lost. Or have we been Occupied, Antifa’d and Fergusoned so harshly that the young generation Wright addresses enjoys only the shock of violence and no longer cares about the cultural heritage based on those non-Tarantino virtues: connection, respect, obligation, civility, and love?

Wright makes several narrative explorations into honor-among-thieves, trust-between-lovers, and family-fidelity themes, but one stands out: Baby’s scariest criminal colleague is Bats (Jamie Foxx), a black ghetto fiend from the film’s Atlanta, Ga., setting. It’s Foxx’s best characterization since Any Given Sunday, and the Black Lives Matter mob should be analyzing it from now on.

Bats updates Foxx’s title role in Django Unchained, QT’s inauthentic Blaxploitation-movie fantasy. Perhaps because Wright is English and somewhat distanced from those self-gratifying cultural delusions that made QT think he was revealing essential American race tensions, Foxx’s badass stereotype here is an undisguised, frighteningly modern miscreant. Bats doesn’t seek “justice,” he just wants money — and, secretly, he wants revenge for the social ills that, according to hip-hop ethos, have urged him toward heartlessness and crime. This is Hollywood’s first post–Michael Brown characterization, and, through this character, Wright pinpoints black ghetto resentments behind the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” Bats effectively sizes up his criminal rival (Jon Hamm, playing a former Wall Streeter) as “you acquired the kind of debt that makes a white man blush.”

Wright pinpoints black ghetto resentments behind the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter.’

Baby’s white-boy innocence is the opposite of the seething menace represented by Foxx, Hamm, and Jon Bernthal’s Griff, revealing the conspicuous, audience-pampering, and ethnic cop-outs of most Hollywood entertainment. Baby’s collection of personally recorded mix-tapes and scenes with his black foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) nod to Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, geek blockbusters that also pampered fans who take pleasure in feigning their innocence. But when Wright lets loose with his British-tinged social satire, Baby Driver compares to Jared Hess’s more genial crime comedy, Masterminds, and becomes the funniest and most incisive crime movie since Next Day Air. Wright goes beyond the comic-book and action-movie spoofs of QT’s ilk.

Baby Driver might have equaled Breathless, Bonnie & Clyde, and Chinatown had Wright not peppered Baby’s crime spree with so many cute asides (or repeated several testimonies to the kid’s decency). His music cues and music-based sound design finally become glib and self-congratulatory (unlike the moving way a single pop song connected generations in the Mexican film Güeros). Consider that the smart-ass title “Baby Driver” is the title of a 1970 Simon and Garfunkel ditty about family heritage that recites, “My daddy was a prominent frogman / My mamma’s in the Naval reserve / When I was young I carried a gun / But I never got a chance to serve.” And then comes its most telling line: “I did not serve.”

The reference to that song’s Vietnam Draft-era abstention (the choice of criminal rebellion over military service) establishes that baby-faced Elgort is a contemporary response to the anomie of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. Yet, that’s it. None of Baby Driver’s compacted pop-culture totems sparks consciousness like the Renaissance art that obsesses the teen hero in Eugène Green’s Son of Joseph. Though not as meretricious as the culture remixing by that innocent amoral idiot Tarantino, Wright is essentially shallow, which is akin to what made Paul Simon a gifted yet minor artist.

I wanted Baby Driver to be great, but Wright doesn’t risk tragedy as Breathless, Bonnie & Clyde, and Chinatown did. Instead, Baby Driver caters to the blinkered, solipsistic state of our present-day culture; it’s an Asperger’s masterpiece.

*****

Sofia Coppola seems to have lost her pop-music smarts in her remake of The Beguiled. Without ironic pop-music commentary (as in her 2006 Marie Antoinette), this adaptation of Don Siegel’s 1971 drama (which starred Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page in a Civil War-era, Tennessee Williams-style gothic revenge drama) becomes another of Sofia Coppola’s listless spoiled-girl forays. She evokes the same sorority-house haziness of her debut feature, The Virgin Suicides, once again pondering female sexual deviousness and naïveté: Nicole Kidman runs a boarding school of southern maidens (intense Kirsten Dunst, nubile Elle Fanning, and others) who take in a wounded Yankee (Colin Farrell).

Every character is subject to his or her own arousal and self-interest — except Coppola, who here proves she isn’t really a director but a blasé hipster who extracts the drama out of everything. Pseudo-feminist Coppola even erases the black slave cook, forcefully portrayed in the original by Mae Mercer, whose presence made the microcosmic melodrama turn macro — historically accurate and politically relevant. Instead, Coppola once again relies on her own social and gender status, pretending to observe the war between the sexes, with cannons booming in the distance. She ought to have known that her over-obvious point was already made better by the New York Dolls song “Who Are the Mystery Girls?”

*****

Michael Bay finally makes his Armageddon II, even though it’s titled “Transformers: The Last Knight.” Bay stretches the franchise backward to medieval times, then forward to our imminent dystopian future when Optimus Prime gets brainwashed on the planet Cybertron and then returns to destroy Earth. In the opening Arthurian-travesty scenes, Bay creates actual thunderballs (maybe he should do a Bond next), then he entertains quasi-political allegory in the present-day scenes of Transformers hiding out in “Alien No-Go zones” of post-Industrial Revolution ghost towns.

Once again, the Transformer series verges on absurdity but that’s less important than the unique big-screen spectacle of Bay’s pop-art and futurist filmmaking. In the 2013 Pain & Gain, Bay had seemed to be moving toward artistry of his own — his love of mechanics, digital effects, and an ad-man’s view of the world (including leggy, full-lipped, model-type heroines).

But The Last Knight seems plot-driven, not purely and ingeniously cinematic like the previous installments. He even employs a new little robot, in the mode of The Phantom Menace’s BB-8, which rolls around the explosive, pyrotechnic chaos while humans and bigger bots enact endless repetitions of Road Runner-style slapstick violence, acrobatics, and painlessness in strangely empty cities. By trying to outdo James Cameron, Peter Jackson, and Christopher Nolan, Bay must have forgotten that he used to be the superior artist.

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Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.