“Baby Driver” is the best time I’ve had at the movies in months, and, if the world is too much with you (as it is for many of us these days), you may feel the same. It’s a dazzling diversion, a series of cinematic highs that achieve the giddiness of not great art but great entertainment (and thus art through the back door).
Directed by Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz”), it’s a heist comedy, at least on the surface. It’s also a true-blue romance and, during the tense, pinballing final act, a suspense thriller. But mostly “Baby Driver” is an action ballet, built on the Aristotelian notion of the perfect iPod playlist and featuring a hero young and innocent and skilled enough to dance his way through life.
The baby driver of “Baby Driver” is named Baby (Ansel Elgort), and he drives. Getaway cars, specifically, on the orders of an Atlanta Mr. Big named Doc (Kevin Spacey), who has Baby in a bind. The other members of Doc’s robbery crews — older criminals both more ordinary and more flamboyantly nasty — write Baby off as a mental case (not their phrasing) with his spooky silences, omnipresent sunglasses, and earbuds buzzing like a fly in the room.
Then they get in the back of his getaway car and become believers. The first of the movie’s many chase scenes is set to “Bellbottoms,” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and it immediately sets the film’s high stakes, Baby’s car — a Subaru! don’t tell Mom! — slip-sliding through roadblocks and back alley set-pieces with something that can only be called automotive elegance. Even the way Elgort’s Baby walks down a sidewalk is with righteous inner rhythm. It’s as if the soul of Fred Astaire had been transplanted into the “Fast and Furious” franchise.
Baby is an orphan — the flashbacks to his loss play like scenes from an illuminated manuscript — and he keeps his smarts to himself. Then he meets Debora (Lily James, of “Downton Abbey”), a diner waitress with a home-fried accent and a heart as pure as his. Their courtship is set to Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y” on the jukebox, and there are mutually smitten discussions about the best songs with “Debora” in the title. (Baby sticks up for the one by T. Rex, whom he charmingly thinks is called “Trex,” and Debora for Beck’s “Debra,” which doesn’t count because it’s about coming on to your girlfriend’s sister.)
The supporting cast is right out of a Quentin Tarantino police lineup: Jon Hamm puts “Mad Men” (mostly) in the rearview mirror as Buddy, who loves his gun-toting girlfriend Darling (Eiza González) as much as he loves robbing banks. (They have matching “His” and “Hers” tattoos in cursive on their necks.) Jamie Foxx plays the aptly named Bats, the sort of quiet fire-breathing psycho who sets entire scenes on edge.
They’re creepy customers but “Baby Driver” somehow maintains a tone of sweetness even as bullets fly, blood spurts, and gears are stripped. In fact, the movie feels like Tarantino minus the sleaze. Wright is a superb cinematic stylist — one of the best currently working — but you don’t feel a movie nerd’s need to prove his bona fides. He just wants to build a better mousetrap. And, boy, does he.
“Baby Driver” only goes a little awry in its penultimate scenes. Hamm’s Buddy suddenly has more to do and the character doesn’t quite carry the weight to do the lifting. The action, previously tied to cause and effect, begins to veer toward ornamental overkill. Spacey’s Doc, splendidly cold-blooded throughout, reveals that he isn’t actually the lizard we thought, and I’m just not buying it.
“Baby Driver” has already pivoted from lightness to dark, from celebration to threat, in much the way the late Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece, “Something Wild” (1986), deepened the moment Ray Liotta pulled up alongside Jeff Daniels’s car. But Wright doesn’t have the soulful humanity that Demme brought to everything he touched, and there’s no randomness in his universe. That tight control makes “Baby Driver” a marvelous high-wire act while keeping it just short of an all-time classic.
Your mileage may vary. Anyway, there are so many side benefits here, including a lead performance of youthful poise from Elgort (”The Fault in Our Stars”), stuntwork that choreographs dozens of vehicles with fluid grace, and a soundtrack that answers the prayers of anyone who loves music and movies with equal force.
Baby peels out to Jonathan Richman’s “Egyptian Reggae,” Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance,” The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat,” Golden Earring’s “Radar Love,” Queen’s “Brighton Rock,” Young MC, Brenda Holloway, the Beach Boys, Barry White, and, yes, the title track by Simon and Garfunkel. Every song fits its scene, every scene is cut to fit its song, and the whole thing purrs like a powerful engine perfectly tuned. Is this the first automotive musical? Probably not, but it’s the one that crosses the finish line.
Written and directed by Edgar Wright. Starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 113 minutes. R (violence, language, high-octane choreography throughout).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.