A first-rate cast, high ambitions, and grandiose spectacle certainly prevent Babylon from being a complete trainwreck in Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s latest feature. With extraordinary set-pieces and spectacular craftsmanship, plus superlative performances by Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, and Diego Calva, the film indeed goes a long way. But despite these strong points, the film dilutes itself past the two-hour mark and holds many uneven elements that prevent it from the substantial achievement that it hints at. Despite some flaws, Chazelle, who directed his own original screenplay, pays homage to Hollywood’s early days in the 1920s, a pivotal period in the industry’s transition from silent to talkies. The result is a vastly entertaining and sprawling spectacle, but it is also deeply exhausting as it unfolds. Chazelle’s fifth film holds high scope and quickly finds its personality as it takes on a more Felliniesque aspect of Hollywood’s underground debauchery that consists of wild parties, sex orgies, and underground subcultures that existed during the roaring 20s. The film also explores some rousing behind-the-scenes subplots of filmmaking, such as the rise and fall of silent movie stars, and Chazelle once again explores his recurring theme of characters aiming high to achieve their dreams, no matter how tough the obstacles lie ahead of them.
With its episodic structure, the film, like Fellini’s films, is mostly presented in vignettes. Because there have been a lot of “insider” films released within the last 10 years or so about film history, show business, the film industry or industry types, another tribute to Tinseltown and the world of filmmaking might seem redundant. We have had such films as Birdman, The Fabelmans, Nope, Licorice Pizza, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and the 2011 Oscar winner The Artist, Some audiences might feel drained from these types of films, but the film’s spirit of hedonism should appeal to viewers who embrace Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, as much of Babylon is quite uncompromising in how it observes, explores, or celebrates the decadence that is on display.
In Babylon, Chazelle effectively emphasizes points about the transitory essence of celebrity, the relationship between artistry and fame, and the difficulties of actors, producers, directors, writers, and all film technicians making the bumpy conversion from silent films to sound. While Babylon is a step down from both Chazelle’s brilliant La La Land and riveting sophomore film Whiplash, which are currently his peak films, there are moments in the film where you feel he has evolved as a filmmaker on a technical level, and moments where Chazelle has regressed as a storyteller. Nonetheless, Chazelle’s vision boasts some substantial innovations that offer many satisfying scenes, regardless of some detours and missteps. The end result is a very mixed and uneven film, but it must be seen to be believed.
Chazelle establishes the tone of the film right away, as an animal wrangler attempts to assist Manny Torres (Calva), a Mexican immigrant who works for a major motion picture studio, in escorting an elephant to a party. The hapless wrangler ends up being defecated on by a rented elephant as he attempts to push the truck up a hill in the desert. It’s a very grotesque scene where the elephant’s feces even squirts onto the camera lens, which resembles the blood spattering into the camera in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. The grotesqueness doesn’t stop there, as the next sequence of events at a night party where we see drinking, orgies, and dancing takes place in a room where a silent movie actor is eagerly awaiting a golden shower from a starlet. These extreme moments immediately bring to mind the works of Fellini, Peter Greenaway, and even the infamous 1979 film Caligula. The starlet ends up overdosing, and production studio fixer (Flea) must clean up the mess of the overdose, which leads to him encouraging Manny to assist in disposing of the body. In this and other aspects, you can certainly sense that Chazelle is channeling Boogie Nights, which was also an ensemble of many supporting characters that fade in and out, but the film doesn’t quite earn the character depth the way P.T. Anderson achieved it.
Babylon is every bit as energetic, booming, and even more bombastic than anything Chazelle has done before. While much of it will give you whiplash with its exuberance, not all of the characters ignite on an emotional level. While the film could be viewed as being from the perspective of Manny, who starts off as an observer and eventually becomes a dreamer as he works himself up the studio chain, Too often, Manny feels neglected or put off to the side, even though he often appears observing and lurking in the background in just about every scene.
The film could have benefited from narration, or at the very least, a few more scenes could have been added to make him feel like the central character. Manny instantly finds a spark once he encounters aspiring silent movie actress Nellie Laroy (Robbie) at the party. He explains to her that he wants to be part of something substantial and meaningful. This carries on Chazelle’s recurring themes, which we have seen before in Whiplash and La La Land, of pursuing one’s dreams, no matter what impairments it creates for the individuals embarking on their dreams.
Manny certainly loves the movies, Nellie passes herself off as an actress to gain access to the parties, and we meet silver screen superstar Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), at the party. He’s abandoned at the party after an argument with his wife (Olivia Wilde), and we never see Wilde again in the film. Manny loves movies and is determined to break into the industry. Trying to get an elephant with explosive bowel habits up a hill is just one way of doing so. After a wild night of cocaine lines, hook-ups, dwarfs dancing with penis balloons, orgies, cocaine overdoses, and an elephant running rampant inside the mansion, we wake up the next morning to an extravagant movie set, or sets, as multiple productions are going on in the deserts of the San Fernando Valley. In one of the films highlight sequences, we follow Nellie getting her opportunity to finally act in the movies. With so much chaos, distraction, and noise going on from other movies being produced within the same vicinity, Nellie is directed by a silent movie director named Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton, Chazelle’s wife), who demands that she weep tears take after take, and Nellie has the talent to cry on demand, even with all the distractions circling around here. This brings her instant notoriety and positions her as a leading lady.
Of course, just after Nellie finds success in the cinema, Manny ends up discovering in New York that movies are transitioning over to sound with dialogue passages, talking characters, and mono sound. Manny ends up attending the premiere of The Jazz Singer and witnesses it firsthand. He calls his producers out in LA, and the industry must readapt with screenplays, sound recordings, and room tone, and just one slight disruption could undermine the entire production. In the film’s standout scene, Nellie gets her first crack at dialogue as every distraction you can think of disrupts the set. Anyone who has actually been on a film set can attest to how irritating this can be when attempting to shoot a film. It’s another commanding scene and a great reminder of just how skilled an actor Robbie really is.
The second hour of the film is reestablishing the saga and adjusting to the sound. The film’s structure is mostly vignettes with rowdy humor and an episodic structure that focuses on a string of characters navigating throughout the story from one extravagant set-piece to another. Of course, no Chazelle film is ever complete without the use of jazz. One of the film’s most compelling subplots involves a Black trumpet player, Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), who plays his trumpet with his fellow jazz players, and his character finally gets a payoff with some social commentary on how studios treated their Black actors with demands on set.
There are many other supporting characters that make a mark as well, like Eric Roberts as Nellie’s father, Max Minghella as movie mogul Irving Thalberg, and Li Jun Li as Lady Fay Zhu, a cabaret singer who writes intertitles for the movies. The rest of the film is extremely unhinged, with many lurid moments and zaniness. One of the film’s most flamboyant characters is drug dealing mob boss James McKay (Tobey Maguire), and this segment in the film certainly channels the Wonderland sequence with Alfred Molina in Boogie Nights. The sequence feels overly derivative, and the scene ends in a grotesque chamber that feels like a hodgepodge of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible and an Alejandro Jodorowsky movie, except nowhere near as effective. You can’t help but feel drained by the time the film reaches this point.
Babylon’s technical achievements are extraordinary as well. Linus Sangreden’s cinematography is handsomely shot and brings out all the vibrant energy in Chazelle’s staging, Florencia Martin’s production design vividly transports you as if you’re time traveling to that era. Frequent Chazelle composer Justin Hurwitz once again composes an addicting and refreshing score, and the costume design by Mary Zophres is meticulous. This is certainly a majestic piece of cinema where you can see the great collaborators coming together. But as a film about filmmaking goes, Babylon doesn’t come close to capturing the spirit the way Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or Fellini’s 8 1/2 did. Quite frankly, these types of insider films are starting to feel draining. The film even references Singin’ in the Rain, and there is one pivotal point in the film that involves a potentially sincere finale that is co-opted up by a bombastic, ill-advised montage that feels like it was lifted straight out of Moonage Daydream.
Outside of all the audacity and missteps, there is a sincere fondness for a bygone era, but there is also cautionary commentary to be found. While far different in approach than Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Chazelle is drawn into the facade of the medium. He attempts to dig deep into the disturbing roots of Tinseltown. Chazell offers a raucous mix of history and what could have been history in a testimonial opus to the players of cinema whose livelihoods and passions were stripped away from them by an ever-changing industry that spits out more than it beholds. It’s an infrastructure whose soul nature is to suck up its participants, and Babylon reminds us of all the agony, blood, sweat, tears, and suffering that goes into movies, just as Jordan Peele’s Nope used the UFO creature as a metaphor for how you can never tame or even look it straight in the eye.
Babylon, will undoubtedly divide its audience just as it did the critics. One thing is for certain: Babylon is worth seeing for the performances and spectacle alone. While deeply flawed, at times very gross, and sensational, there is no denying just how vastly entertaining most of the film is. The film holds great promise that quickly bursts to life as it carries on and eventually exhausts you until the very end. While the film is quite uneven, it’s still well worth the experience. It’s something you will likely never forget.
Babylon will be showing in theaters Friday, December 23rd.