“Baby Driver” begins with a bang, a showstopper of an opening number reminiscent of the ecstatic traffic jam in “La La Land,” only this time with the cars themselves as the dancers.
While his co-conspirators rob a bank, a young wheelman waits outside, playing air violin to “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Once the baddies are back in the car, he takes them on a tense police chase through an anonymous-looking downtown, the feints, double-backs and climactic shell game involving identical red Subarus choreographed with the lock-step precision of a Rockettes routine.
Nominally, “Baby Driver” takes place in Atlanta, but it really exists in the imaginative world of Edgar Wright, the British filmmaker whose previous films – “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” – brim with equal parts sophomoric humor, boyish kicks and grating self-satisfaction. This often clever but ultimately appalling piece of genre inversion has originality on its side: It’s a Tarantino-esque heist film reconceived as a jukebox musical. But that novelty soon wears off as it becomes clear that it’s less written than reverse-engineered to live up to its title.
It’s about a driver, whose name is Baby, and who likes to pose and mouth along to retro-hip songs by T. Rex and Martha and the Vandellas. It’s got style and swagger to burn, and some of the set pieces are ingeniously staged, but it panders to the lazy affectations of a generation raised on lip-sync battles and late-night karaoke culture.
Played by Ansel Elgort, who spends most of the movie hiding behind a perpetual scowl and vintage-looking shades, Baby is a getaway driver in the tradition of the Ryans (O’Neal and Gosling), a man-child of few words who, we learn, has been dragooned into service by a criminal ringleader played with hambone brio and bluster by Kevin Spacey. “Baby Driver” belongs to the subgenre of “one more job, then I’m out” crime pictures, whose fascination with violence, depravity and thuggish escapism are offset by a protagonist who’s dutifully reluctant and guilt-stricken.
Wright goes out of his way throughout “Baby Driver” to prove the title character’s ethical bona fides: He falls in love with a truehearted diner waitress (Lily James), and when he carjacks an elderly woman, he makes sure to return her purse before tearing off. The butt of merciless jokes from his fellow miscreants (played by Jon Hamm, John Bernthal and Eiza González), Baby uses his ill-gotten gains to take care of his deaf, wheelchair-bound godfather, played by CJ Jones.
The virtue signaling is as flamboyant and unsubtle as the production numbers in “Baby Driver,” in which every scene is a set piece of extravagant staging and skintight editing. An otherwise dreary rundown of the next job is given a propulsive, syncopated jolt by Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance” in the background. (“Shop: Let’s talk it,” Spacey’s character says, sounding like an extra from “Sweet Smell of Success”). In an early sequence, Baby bops down the street listening to “The Harlem Shuffle,” marveling at everyone else’s private dances as they move within their own musical bubbles.
As charming as “Baby Driver” strives to be, the appeal starts to curdle once Wright makes his fetishistic aims clear. Not only is he infatuated with spectacular chases, shootouts and idiotically improbable gunplay, he uses the sound of shots being fired as musical elements in themselves, the rat-a-tat-tats providing a homicidal, mostly bloodless rhythm section to the mayhem unfolding on screen.
“Baby Driver” culminates in pulverizing havoc, its overworked, hyper-stimulated ethos barely offset by a too-tidy final reckoning. Appropriately enough, “Baby Driver” ends by promiscuously borrowing from yet another genre: the time-honored cake-and-eat-it movie whose vicious, vicarious pleasures are both exploited and exonerated.
We’re supposed to be convinced and reassured by Baby’s inherent sweetness. But his movie leaves an aftertaste that’s slightly but unmistakably sour.