Feb 20, 2020
Movie Duel: Baby Driver vs. Drive
Welcome back to Movie Duels, in which we watch two dueling movies and offer our eminently qualified opinion of which film, if any, has a reason for existing, and which one should have been left back at the pitch meeting. Note: This column, normally written the great Tyler Peterson, is currently coming to you from Susan Velazquez instead. Note #2: This Movie Duel contains minor spoilers for Baby Driver.
In crime films, it seems that all that getaway drivers do is get characters from point A to point B. Maybe they stick around and keep the engine running, but they’re usually forgotten or killed off toward the end of the movie. Some getaway drivers are memorable, like Donald Breedan in Heat or Roach in Point Break, but films where the driver was the central focus, like Gone in 60 Seconds or The Driver were few and far between until the success of franchises like The Transporter and The Fast & The Furious, which showed audiences how thrilling it could be to get from point A to point B.
With audiences bored of the same shallow plots and endless sequels, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is a smarter, more elevated version of typical summer action thriller that develops the getaway driver into a fully developed character and also (pardon the pun) the driver of plot.
“But didn’t they already make Baby Driver? Wasn’t it just called Drive?” someone complained to me after I expressed interest in seeing Wright’s latest action comedy. I was surprised by this comparison, because I figured that Wright’s fun, energetic filmmaking style would draw more comparisons to the Fast and Furious franchise or the Nicolas Cage movie/tax write-off Drive Angry than the quiet 2011 drama starring Ryan Gosling.
But upon further examination, these movie are twins. They have similar premises: a quiet getaway driver is in love with a pretty blonde and tries to break free from a life of crime, all set to an awesome soundtrack. Drive follows an unnamed aloof character known as the Driver (Ryan Gosling), a mechanic/stunt driver/getaway driver, who falls in love with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) while her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. When Standard returns from prison and is coerced into participating in a robbery, the Driver volunteers his help. When the job goes bad, the Driver risks his life to protect Irene and her son from the fallout. Baby Driver is centered on Baby (Ansel Elgort), a music-loving orphan with a case of tinnitus, who must work as a getaway driver for a local kingpin (Kevin Spacey) to work off a debt. Baby falls in love with waitress Debora (Lily James) and tries to go straight until he gets called in for one last job that goes terribly wrong.
They’re also both huge successes, so this column isn’t to take away from the financial and critical acclaim each has respectively garnered. Like the way Tyler Peterson explored Deep Impact and Armageddon simply to see how similar premises can have different executions, this Movie Duel is more of a way to examine how differently these two films decided to approach the character of a getaway driver.
The Protagonists: The Drivers with No Name
Edgar Wright has a knack for crafting witty, clever characters, but Baby is an unimpressive cliché. He’s got a tragic backstory, a cool old black guy as his best friend/father figure, a quirky hobby of recording everyday conversations to make remixes with vintage stereo equipment, and he’s got such a heart of gold that he actually apologizes to an old lady when he steals her car. If Baby had been played by any other actor, all of these character traits might have come together to form something charming, but Ansel Elgort is a terrible fit for the role. There are several scenes where Baby lip-syncs and dances to his favorite songs, but the earnestness feels awkward and contrived rather than endearing. Baby’s innocence also feels wildly unrealistic for a person who’s supposedly been a getaway driver since he was approximately eight years old.
I can understand that Baby would balk at the violence of his fellow crewmembers, but I can’t buy that the events in the movie are the first time he’s seen people kill or threaten to kill in his line of work. As a fresh-faced, baby face himself, Elgort can pull off the innocence of Baby, but when it’s time to get tough and stoic, the most he can muster is a blank stare and a pout, which I’m sure causes teen girls who loved The Fault in Our Stars to swoon, but it’s not good enough here. Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey, and Jamie Foxx manage to bring to life the thinly sketched stereotypes they play (Hamm is the handsome thief, Spacey the aloof kingpin, and Foxx plays a trigger-happy criminal), while Elgort’s Baby flounders to keep the attention on him.
As a contrast, we know virtually nothing about Ryan Gosling’s Driver, and he still manages to be the most mesmerizing character in Drive, which is no easy feat considering the cast is filled with acting heavyweights like Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks, and Ron Perlman. Instead of relying on exposition or dialogue to make the audience invested in the Driver, Gosling concentrates all of his energy into using the nonverbal aspects of his performance to convey who the Driver is. Gosling shifts his demeanor between a coolly focused getaway/stunt driver to a kind, lighthearted neighbor to a vengeful knight in a scorpion jacket with an extreme capacity for violence back and forth throughout the course of the movie. When you know the Driver has all these sides to him simmering under the surface, you keep your eye on him to see what he’ll do next. Without a doubt, Drive wins this round.
Also, Gosling’s got the cooler jacket.
Putting the Rubber to the Road
If Drive is the perfect driving instructor who keeps both hands at ten and two and somehow knows how to calm you down when you get on the freeway too soon, Baby Driver is the little kid who sits in the toy car by the strip mall and makes engine noises as he spins the wheel wildly.
Drive maintains a realistic approach to getaway driving, and separates it from the the Driver’s stuntman job, where he does get into reckless crashes and the typical things we see in the movies. The first ten minutes of Drive is the Driver on a job, chauffeuring a pair of thieves away from the warehouse they just robbed. The Driver drives a generic sedan, speeds some but not too much, and hides in alleys and under highway overpasses to avoid patrolling helicopters. The Driver relies on a police scanner and excellent timing to quickly, but quietly get the thieves to a crowded baseball stadium where they can all disappear into the crowd. He favors substance over style, and that’s why in the few driving action sequences (which there are surprisingly few of in a movie called Drive), the Driver is calm and methodical. Even in the intense car sequence after the botched robbery attempt, the Driver’s driving is extremely controlled, while his mysterious adversary is prone to sloppy turns and overeager attempts to run the Driver off the road. In the end, the Driver is victorious because he values practicality.
However, Baby is considered the best of the best simply because he can pull of the flashy moves that no one else can. Whether it’s doing a 180 degree drift to dodge a truck in a small alley, going the opposite way on the highway to lose a squad of police cars, or hiding in a line of similar-looking cars to throw cops off the trail, Baby can do it all and he does it well. As much as I complained about Elgort’s acting, it doesn’t matter when he gets behind the wheel, because all of the focus gets put on the action. Edgar Wright has proven his knack for action sequences time after time, but I think Baby Driver might be the greatest culmination of his talents. You might think that the Fast and Furious franchise has killed any excitement from the basic car chase (it had to resort to launching cars out of planes and outracing submarines in Russia), but Wright makes you feel like you’re right there in the passenger seat as you watch Baby swerve and slide around on the road.
In real life, a career getaway driver can’t afford to be flashy, and Drive tries its hardest to make practicality look cool, but it just can’t beat the high octane adrenaline of Baby Driver.
This is the most subjective category, but here’s my criteria for movie soundtracks: the mark of a good movie soundtrack is if I listen to the song again outside of the context of the movie, and I can immediately recall the scene it played in and have the same emotions that I felt while I watched it.
Obvious examples of this are how most people picture the interrogation scene from Reservoir Dogs when “Stuck in the Middle with You” plays, or see Tony Manero strutting down the streets of Bay Ridge when “Staying Alive” plays. Personally, I picture Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg forlornly refreshing his Facebook page no matter when I hear “Baby You’re A Rich Man”, and still associate Barry Manilow with Kathy Bates’s dippy housewife from Unconditional Love, a movie I’ve only seen once. That’s how powerful the right movie choices are.
Baby Driver is packed with music from start to finish, to reflect the way the way Baby must constantly listen to music to deal with his severe case of tinnitus. I was surprised to see only 30 tracks listed on the soundtrack album, because I definitely heard more throughout the movie (Tunefinder counts 47 tracks played, and cites the individual scenes they were referenced in), and I remember thinking that the film’s gimmick was starting to become over-saturated by the halfway point. While there’s no bad individual track on the album, the over-saturation makes it difficult for the few standouts—I particularly enjoyed the use of Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” as a bonding point for Baby and Debora, and Sky Ferreira singing as Baby’s deceased mother with a stripped down cover of “Easy” by the Commodores—to keep from getting lost in the shuffle of ’60s pop, ’70s rock, and ’90s indie rock. The variety was explained in-universe by Baby claiming he has different iPods for different moods, but I felt like maybe Wright was afraid that too much 1970s rock would draw comparisons to Guardians of the Galaxy, so he threw other genres into the mix. The result resembles more of a jumbled mess than an funky, eclectic music library.
Drive, in contrast, never deviates from a synthpop/electronic sound, so even pre-recorded tracks like Desire’s “Under Your Spell” and College and Sonic Youth’s collaboration “A Real Hero” sound like they could be from the same band. Cliff Martinez’s dreamy score matches the tone of the film note for note, so you can recall exactly which scene they played in and your corresponding emotional reaction. “He Had a Good Time” is a mournful, tender track on its own without having to watch the Driver give Irene a goodbye kiss in the elevator. I will concede that it’s much more lethargic than the energy of Baby Driver‘s soundtrack, but the Drive soundtrack is a stronger, more cohesive body of work.
Which One Needs to Exist?
Both. They’re really strong, well-made films that choose to focus on what makes the getaway driver such a mesmerizing character in cinema; Baby Driver chooses the style, Drive chooses the driver himself, and both deliver runaway results. I believe Drive is slightly stronger, because Baby Driver suffers from a weak leading man and a slightly bloated soundtrack, but the reality is I wouldn’t leave either behind in the dust.