Every so often a thing comes along that everyone suddenly loves with such overwhelmingly uniform intensity that it doesn’t feel right to say you’re not quite on board. Things like those tops with holes where the shoulders should be, or Aperol, or Jeremy Corbyn.
The latest is-it-just-me moment comes courtesy of Baby Driver, a movie that has made itself the Film of the Summer, seemingly via sheer force of will. As a megafan of director Edgar Wright’s early comedies, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, I was excited to see it. I was given a pink biscuit in the shape of a car at the screening, which was also exciting. And I kept on feeling excited until about 45 minutes in, when I realised I was willing myself to enjoy the film rather than actually enjoying it.
When I came out I messaged a group of friends that it was “not good”. They helpfully directed me to some good reviews that had already appeared in America. The next day I had a drink with a friend and film fan, who was desperate to hear about the film. When I shrugged, “meh”, he brought up Empire’s five-star review on his phone. It didn’t make me like it any more.
When the film was released a week later, the reviews were breathless – four or five stars across the board. “A summer movie cool enough to induce brain freeze”, said The Guardian; “In a summer of yet more synthetic blockbusters, Baby Driver feels entirely original”, said The Independent; “A cinematic joyride”, said Vulture. Only Anthony Lane in The New Yorker was as ambivalent as me: “Baby, I don’t care”, was his verdict.
The thing is, you’re not allowed not to care when it comes to a film like this. It’s not ok to say it’s sort of fine. If you happen to say you didn’t think much of the Film of the Summer, your fate is to spend the rest of the summer with people telling you how much they enjoyed it, actually.
Aziz Ansari captured this phenomenon perfectly in a sketch for Saturday Night Live in January, in which he is interrogated by two hyper-aggressive cops because he has dared to say he didn’t care for La La Land. “What do you have to say for yourself, you sick sonofabitch?” yells one. “La La Land is a PERFECT FILM… Ryan Gosling did not learn piano from scratch so that some little prick could come and nitpick.” “WHAT DO YOU LIKE IF YOU DON’T LIKE LA LA LAND,” yells the other, and so on.
So maybe that’s how Baby Driver becomes the Film of the Summer. A combination of hype and wish-fulfilment. Everyone – from punters to critics – is looking for a film to love in these long months before the Oscar bait kicks in. Summer is traditionally a terrible time for film-lovers: cinemas are filled with holiday family fare, blockbusters and studio dross like The Book of Henry.
Baby Driver has managed to hold itself aloof from all of these, thanks to its British director and his old indie sensibility, a marketable soundtrack and that cool pink poster. You know those people who say they don’t like musicals but will watch Cabaret? This is the film equivalent – a summer action movie for blockbuster snobs. A Fast and Furious for craft beer drinkers.
Wright has said that he first had the idea for the film 22 years ago. He must have been very annoyed when Drive came out six years ago. Baby Driver is about a taciturn, reluctant getaway driver called Baby, who wears a covetable jacket and falls in love with a girl-next-door with whom he is ready to elope when he is pulled in for one last, ultra-violent job. It also has a carefully eclectic soundtrack which will be the background to every barbecue you go to this summer. Sound familiar? Ah, but this driver has tinnitus, which makes him all kinds of different (not that different).
Unlike Drive, Baby Driver doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions. It’s not a blockbuster – it’s too knowing and talky for that. It’s not a heist movie – the heists are uningenious and largely bloody. It’s not a rom-com – the romance is sketchy and the comedy minimal. Much has been made of the car chases, which are choreographed to music and very clever, but not as clever as writing a plot that grips and characters that bind you to them.
Our hero is Baby (Ansel Elgort), a “good kid” who is obsessive about sunglasses and sandwiches, iPods and playlists – in other words, he is the worst person you went to university with. As for the female characters, let’s just say the film doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test [the rule that a film must feature two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man]. There are two women. One is Darling (Sigh. Played by Eiza González), an ex-stripper who is married to Buddy (Jon Hamm), an ex-Wall Street trader, and who blows more bubbles than she speaks lines.
The other is Debora, the love interest and a Southern Belle diner waitress played by English rose Lily James. Debora’s dream is “to head west on 20, in a car I can’t afford, with a plan I don’t have.” This is not something that anyone real would ever say. And this isn’t the Film of the Summer, however much you want it to be.