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Baby Driver is the ultimate expression of Edgar Wright’s madcap creative genius

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The director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz has returned with a genre mash-up that’s part heist drama, part musical romance

Wilson Webb / Sony Pictures Entertainment

It’s hard to think of a filmmaker who’s a better fit for SXSW than Edgar Wright. Movies like Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and The World’s End are odes to genre, whimsy, and Wright’s impeccable directorial talents — but they’re also movies that love other movies. The filmmaker-friendly spirit of Austin’s annual culture-fest makes a perfect setting for the world premiere of Wright’s latest film, Baby Driver.

Spawned from a 22-year-old idea, Baby Driver feels like the most Edgar Wright movie Edgar Wright’s ever made. It stirs his love for meticulous filmmaking, oddball characters, and genre tropes together into a uniquely madcap mix. It is, without a doubt, a complete blast — but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.

WHAT'S THE GENRE?

Like all of Wright’s films, Baby Driver is a mash-up. It’s a caper flick. It’s a car-chase thriller. It’s a love story. It’s a musical. But honestly, it’s a hassle to compartmentalize it into a single descriptor. Does it matter whether Shaun of the Dead is a zombie movie or a romantic comedy? Not really. All that matters for Wright seems to be a core metric: is this fun? Baby Driver excels in that department.

WHAT'S IT ABOUT?

Ansel Elgort plays Baby (yes, really), who works as a getaway car driver for a group of thieves masterminded by Doc (Kevin Spacey). When Baby was young, he lost his parents in a car accident that left him with permanent hearing damage. To drown out the constant ringing in his ears, he now listens to music nonstop, which turns every second of his life into a tap-along, dance-and-sway, magical movie moment. Walking to get coffee becomes an elaborate piece of smooth camerawork and slick choreography. Listening to Doc break down the plans for a heist is an opportunity to pluck the notes on an invisible keyboard. The opening car chase, set to “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues explosion, is an outright cinematic marvel, starting with Baby air-guitaring along to the song. Then it escalates, until he’s performing his expert driving moves in a syncopated sequence merging music and thrills in a fashion that had me whooping with appreciation.

In spite of his job, Baby isn’t a bad guy at heart. We see his charm when he meets a waitress named Deborah (Lily James) at a local diner. They’re both misfits, dreaming of an easier life free of trouble, hoping to hit the open road together with an iPod full of tunes. After Baby finishes working for Doc, he thinks he’ll have that chance.

But this is in part an homage to crime movies. There’s always one more job. The latest gig features a particularly rough group of criminals, including the rough-and-tumble Buddy (Jon Hamm), his girlfriend Darling (Eiza González), and the ticking time bomb Bats (Jamie Foxx). And shortly after that, all hell breaks loose.

WHAT'S IT REALLY ABOUT?

Here’s where Baby Driver gets into some trouble. Wright is interested in a lot of themes: loss; the way music can salve our wounds; how coping mechanisms can sometimes become barriers in their own right, impairing us from engaging with the real world. But Wright largely toys with his biggest ideas rather than unpacking them in hopes of a richer meaning. The early tragedy in Baby’s life has made any whiff of violence or death a trigger for him, yet he somehow has no problem shooting and killing when the plot happens to call for it. Baby has an endless collection of iPods — one for every occasion — but he never really grows enough to leave that crutch behind.

If you break it all down, the movie ultimately seems to be aiming for the surprisingly benign notion that love — particularly romanticized, pop-song kind of love — can heal all wounds. Unfortunately, Deborah is too thinly drawn to make that point resonate, so the movie’s most central idea fades into the background.

BUT IS IT ANY GOOD?

Baby Driver is exhilarating, fantastically entertaining, and mildly frustrating, all at the same time. Wright’s directorial execution has never been better, and he’s able to construct chase sequences that put the Fast and Furious series to shame. (One note I jotted down during the opening sequence: “sickest drift EVER.”) And when it comes to quirky reveals, clever transitions, and bringing a sense of kinetic energy to every frame, there is simply no filmmaker that can match Wright.

But that meticulous style does, at times, leave organic human emotion and connection behind. The film is endlessly clever, but when a movie wants to be as earnest as Baby Driver does, it also needs more than just inventive staging and style. It needs characters that are relatable and real, even if only in the context of their own cinematic world. Simon Pegg has often filled that role in Wright’s films, and while the cast here is excellent (Elgort’s toe-tapping bravado and Hamm’s grizzled menace stand out in particular) the weakness in Baby and Deborah’s love story spoils some of the film’s magic. The problems don’t exactly detract from the ride. They just stop the film short of being the whirling dervish of entertainment it could be.

WHAT SHOULD IT BE RATED?

PG-13. There is violence and bloodshed, but it is almost always portrayed with a comedic undertone that takes the edge off. This is a movie called Baby Driver, after all.

HOW CAN I ACTUALLY WATCH IT?

Baby Driver is scheduled for theatrical release on August 11th, 2017.