Thursday, June 29, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Are you "Cool" Enough?

“Baby Driver" star Ansel Elgort at this week's Cinema Society screening.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Are you "Cool" Enough for "Baby Driver"? Are WE? 

“PEOPLE have asked why I waited 23 years to make this movie? I can now honestly say that I was waiting for Ansel Elgort to grow up and be the leading man!”

That was director Edgar Wright at the Monday night Cinema Society screening of “Baby Driver.”  Wright’s star, Mr. Elgort, was standing with his director, obviously moved by this charming bit of praise.
Ansel Elgort and Edgar Wright.
“BABY Driver” is one the summer’s most eagerly awaited movies, invariably described in advance as “cool” ... “the coolest movie of the year” ... the epitome of cool.”  Ansel Elgort is the New Big Thing in young male actors.  (I predict we’ll see him on the cover of Vanity Fair sooner rather than later.)

Elgort, who made a significant impression in “The Fault in Our Stars” about three years ago is indeed attractive, charismatic, talented.  He’s cool.   Is “Baby Driver,” however, the crispest summer of film of 2017?  
At the risk of admitting to my own un-coolness I would have to say no.  However, the audience at Metrograph, way downtown on Ludlow Street, was of a differing — dare I say younger? — opinion.  This occasionally clever, unrelentingly cacophonous heist film didn’t leave me cold, but it didn’t heighten my “cool.”

The basic tale is one that has been told a million times with a million protagonists, male and female.  Good natured, basically decent person (Mr. Elgort, here) gets in trouble somehow, owes a debt, is threatened into committing, or in this case, assisting crimes, robberies. 
“Baby” — Ansel — is a miraculously clever, fast driver.  He assures the getaway. (Kevin Spacey is the head criminal, in his best trademarked love-to-hate-him mode.)   Other disreputable types onboard include Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and sexy, heartless Eiza Gonzalez. There’s the standard “good” person dragged into the mess.  In “Baby Driver” that would be Lily James, who actually seems to be a bit of a fellow traveler, in the area of recognizing trouble and not running exceptionally fast from it. In other words, she’s not “shocked, shocked!” that Baby has some shady pals.  Oh, there’s also Baby’s kindly, wheelchair bound, deaf foster father.  (CJ Jones.)  Yeah, the usual suspects.
Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, Jamie Foxx, and Elgort in "Baby Driver."
HERE’S the twist, the new plot point that I like, conceptually.

Baby suffers from tinnitus, a constant ringing or buzzing the ears, the result of a traumatic accident as a child. (The script even reminds us that Barbra Streisand is prey to this affliction.)

In order to keep his mind off the ringing, he is constantly listening to music, his earbuds firmly in place. He is shy, monosyllabic, inscrutable. His life is really the music he listens to, and even makes. (He records conversations and turns them into rap music.)   But, is this enough to build a movie around? 

Director Edgar Wright thought so, and he has packed his film with non-stop, blaring music. We have listen to what Baby listens to!  And it’s not that he doesn’t have good taste — we get, among others, Queen, Simon and Garfunkle, Martha and the Vandellas, Barry White, Sam and Dave, T Rex, Beck, Carla Thomas, The Beach Boys and on and on.  And on.  And loud.  (But I’ll probably love the CD!)
Not only that, there’s an assault of car chases and violence and that eventually moves so fast and furiously (yes, that’s a deliberate allusion to the famous franchise) that it becomes comical. And I’m not always sure it’s supposed to be. 

I became desperate for dialogue!  The idea that Baby is so disconnected, yet so focused, is a good one, and I wouldn’t have minded some music, but after a while it became clear that director Wright believes in the old Oscar Wilde dictum, “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.” 
An attitude, by the way, that is not unique. Sensory overload is de rigueur in contemporary cinema. (This observation is made just in case you've missed a "Transformers" movie, a Marvel or DC epic, or anything by Quentin Tarantino.)

I liked all the performances.  Young Mr. Elgort is indeed a promising lad.  Spacey and Foxx — icy and ferociously hotheaded, respectively — are excellent. And I loved Jon Hamm!  His character seems to be positioned one way, then morphs into something else, and then he becomes almost weirdly immortal.  Hamm looked like he was having fun, slicing the ham. 
Spacey and Hamm.
Am I simply too old for this sort of thing?  Was I sitting too close to the screen?  Has the questionable “cool” of my youth, slipped away?   Could be yes to any of those things.  Or, I could be right — maybe “Baby” has been over-hyped?   But what do I know, and why should you care?   Andrew Saffir’s star-studded Cinema Society audience — genuine cool people — loved it.
Daniel Kruglikov, Diana Picasso, and Adrien Brody
Adam Shulman, Amy Sacco, and Anne Hathaway
Will Cotton and Rose Dergan
Darren Aronofsky and Edgar Wright
THERE WAS a party after, at a new rooftop spot, The Crown at the Hotel 50 Bowery. Adrien Brody, Anne Hathaway, Rosario Dawson, Gina Gershon, Peter Cincotti, Dan Abrams, Kieran Culkin, Fern Mallis, Will Cotton and more, more, more packed the rooms and the terrace. 

Avion Tequila cocktails were served, and spicy, summery food — daunting hotdogs. Outside, high above the earthbound stars  and the mere mortals, a crescent moon gleamed. 

My reservations about “Baby Driver” notwithstanding, I am still cool enough to appreciate tequila, hotdogs and the moon!  
Tequila and hot dogs. Is there a better combo?

Photographs by Patrick McMullan Company (Cinema Society)

Contact Liz here.