I’ll tell you this. You’re not going to find a more insane movie this holiday season than Babylon. From its opening minutes, the glitz and glamour of 1920s Hollywood is utterly shattered as the film showers its viewers and characters in filth. I kid you not, there’s at least three to four scenes in those opening minutes alone where… bodily fluids… are expelled at or on various characters (which by the way continues sporadically throughout the movie).
And that’s kind of the point. Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle, the man behind La La Land, is showing you the hideous side of La La Land; physically filthy inside and out. And weirdly enough, as much as you want to turn away, you simply just can’t!
Love it or hate it, I fully believe Babylon will be studied in years to come. And unlike your typical safe Oscar-bait films, Chazelle, while tackling familiar subject matter, does so in an incredibly dynamic way. This is a three hour movie with so much going on, and not once did I check my watch. Was I entertained by what was on-screen? Was I repulsed? Was I annoyed and frustrated? Was I hugely invested? The answer to all of that is yes. This is going to be a very divisive movie. But the one thing that I’ll say was most interesting about it was how much it stayed with me. And the longer it did, the more I ended up liking and respecting this glorious mess.
Babylon chronicles the rise and fall of about six different characters during the golden age of Hollywood, where silent films are about to be demolished by talkies. But, much like Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood… the film primarily follows three of those characters: Diego Calva’s Manny Torres, Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy, and Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad. Torres is a man with a dream to be part of the industry because it represents something greater and bigger than himself. LaRoy is a talented but troubled aspiring actress trying to become the next Greta Garbo. Conrad desires to find a way to revolutionize the industry; something that naturally backfires as the movie progresses. The stories of the three characters impact one another throughout the multi-year course of the film. The film also features Jean Smart as renowned entertainment journalist Elinor St. John, Jovan Adepo as an ambitious trumpet player looking to stir up the jazz scene, and Li Jun Li as an openly gay singer and part-time silent card creator, Lady Fay Zhu.
As stated above, Chazelle foreshadows the filthiness of the entertainment industry and Hollywood overall with the vulgarity of his opening scenes. All of which stand to represent how messy things are going to get for his characters. As the film progresses we truly see that this industry and change within it are the true villains of the piece, along with the ambitions of these different characters and how those various ambitions betray them. With Calva’s character, Manny becomes more and more deplorable the deeper he gets into the industry as he goes higher and higher career-wise.
For LaRoy and Conrad, it’s a depiction of how easily fame can be attained and how just as easily it can be destroyed as the world moves on beyond them, and the effects of that destruction on each of them. The interesting thing is Chazelle makes it clear the disdain isn’t on cinema, or the immortal art of film, but the industry itself. He shows his great affection for cinema and art, and leaves the characters off with the understanding that a even at the end of their lives, they are truly part of something bigger. However, what the political and business side of this industry represents is dirty, unseemly, ungrateful, and backstabbing. All of this is poignant and hard hitting, and for any sort of cinephile who’s ever worked within or attempted to work within the industry, ultimately heartbreakingly relatable.
However, the problem with Babylon isn’t its rich, terrific themes, but rather the chaotic, insane execution, and the screenplay. Chazelle’s characters might be the crying clowns, and you’re invested in their story. But none of them are likable in any sort of way. Some of them are just downright conniving and self destructive, so it’s hard to feel sorry for them, even though you ultimately still do. So it’s incredibly skillful for Chazelle to make us care about these unlikable souls, and certainly no movie outside of the Disney banner is required to make their characters likable. But you’re also not sure how to feel about their ultimate fates either: whether you think it’s deserved or not. Perhaps we shouldn’t be casting judgement on them, because that makes us just as bad as the way the fictional industry is depicted in the film. But it’s hard not to given the actions and decisions they tend to make.
And as a viewer, the uncertainty of how to feel becomes a recurring occurrence as you progress through film. You won’t know how to feel about a lot of it. And it’s because the movie is narratively all over the place. One minute you love cinema, the next minute you hate it. One minute the movie is a drama, the next a comedy, the next a horror movie. I’m 1,000% this is all intentional. But, unlike the welcome and narratively necessary chaos in Everything Everywhere All At Once, the chaotic whiplash of everything going on in Babylon seems very unfocused and somewhat superfluous, so it’s easy for the intent to go over the heads of audiences, myself included. And a lot of the times scenes feel like giant surreal fever dreams where you aren’t sure what you really are watching or why.
It’s an exercise in excess when a fair amount of it didn’t serve much of a purpose, or served too slight of a purpose that the film’s themes and narrative could have stood on their own without the excessive ideas; an overelaborate scene about fighting a rattlesnake comes to mind. So a lot of what Chazelle is trying to do or say can be relatively unclear given the unnecessary pit stops he makes. And as such, it will definitely not be as accessible for many, and will certainly remain a divisive piece of filmmaking.
That’s not to say there isn’t great stuff. From a performance standpoint, Robbie is completely terrific. In one of my favorite moments in the film, she storms into the set of a film as a last-minute replacement for an actress, and is asked to cry on cue over and over. The stark change from a deer-in-headlights reaction to a scene-stealing dynamo is so incredibly impressive, and it’s something that’s likely guaranteed to generate Oscar buzz for Best Actress. She’s often playing opposite Calva, who showcases one of the strongest big-screen debuts in years.
Calva has so much charisma, and becomes a positively energetic presence in every scene he’s in, from his explanation for why he loves film in the movie’s opening, to the moment he rises up to become a studio executive. He brings in so much power and gusto into Torres’ determination and resourcefulness, but also the frustrations as he has to overcome obstacles, like creating a comeback for the love of his life. At the drop of a hat, he can also play it incredibly sketchy and awful, as the character begins to get corrupted throughout the film by the industry he serves.
You also get great, though limited, performances out of Li and Adepo, who play the only characters that end the movie on a relatively unscathed standpoint. And of course, Smart steals her scenes, and gives a really powerful, brutal monologue towards the end of the film’s second act.
Less successful is Pitt, who plays things a bit broad. While Pitt’s character is tragic and complex, he’s simply utilizing his same old tricks as an actor, teetering between his typical brand of physical humor at times, with his typical dramatic delivery. It’s reminiscent of what he did for his Oscar-winning performance as Cliff Booth, but he doesn’t quite bring anything extraordinary to the role, despite the role being one of the more interesting and devastating character arcs in the movie.
In addition to the acting, the other stars of Babylon are the technical aspects of the movie. We’ll start with Justin Hurwitz’s brilliant bombastic score. It keeps the pacing of this three hour movie going and going and going. You feel the sense of urgency in every scene or montage, instantly immersing you into every difficult stressful situation during a crazy day with fast-paced composition to match the fast-paced editing of the scene. It keeps you energized, but it’s also catchy as hell. And it immerses you in the lavishness of an extravagant Hollywood ‘20s party. In and of itself, it’s almost a secondary star in the film, driving the scenes as importantly as the acting and direction.
The cinematography, courtesy of La La Land cinematographer Linus Sandgrenis, is also gorgeous. The shots and his use of color to set a tone for a scene are astonishing. And the production design and art direction are also simply brilliant, transporting you back to the ‘20s with exquisite details in every car, prop camera, and faux movie set you witness come to life. And the costume design is terrific as well, showcasing the elaborate trends of glamorous 1920s Hollywood. Chazelle really did his homework in recreating the Hollywood of yore.
For as chaotic a film as Babylon is in execution, however, I can’t deny it’s ultimately a very compelling film, that’s actually quite funny and affecting at times. The movie is three hours, but the pacing is absolutely relentless, and the tension is constantly high. It demonstrates Chazelle’s talents as a filmmaker to keep you interested in what’s going on for the full runtime, and with characters that are incredibly unlikable. And part of that is likely because of his passion as a filmmaker. You can tell he believes in this film with full conviction regardless of whether or not anyone else does. He’s so confident in his themes and his story, and regardless of how insanely all-over-the-place it seems still manages to suck you in too. And that is saying something!
Despite its somewhat unfocused shortcomings, and tonally messy proclivity to engage in coked-out random surrealism, Babylon is a true cinematic spectacle that has to be seen to be believed! A cacophony of imagery and sound that sobers you up to the glamor but also the grit of show business. Chazelle once again tackles the notion of broken dreams but does so in a way that challenges its viewers and will leave a lingering presence to think about for days to come. It may not be for everyone, but this is a three hour celluloid achievement for the director that will haunt you long after the final frame fades to black!
Overall Score: B-
Babylon hits theaters December 23!