A work of pure spectacle and scandal, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s overblown, risky, and compulsively watchable Babylon is a film with love for the past made with the most post-modern of sensibilities. Clocking in over three hours in length and boasting no more than half a dozen constantly shifting and overlapping plot lines that unfold over the course of a decade, Babylon will not be remembered for its subtlety or manners. It’s a messy film about living trainwrecks trying to achieve their dreams while the sands of time move in waves beneath them. It’s a lot to take in – inarguably too much even for the length of this – but Babylon is never boring. There’s plenty to admire and parse across the entirety of Chazelle’s drug and booze soaked freak out.
Every thread of Babylon revolves back around to Manuel Torres (Diego Calva), a young immigrant working as a gopher and fixer for a film producer (Flea) in mid-1920s Hollywood. Manny’s dream is to get a job on a film set, but his particular set of skills (which includes elephant wrangling and 86ing someone who has overdosed at a party without guests noticing anything has happened) holds him back. He finds a pair of unlikely kindred spirits in the form of two performers at different points in their careers. Unhinged, energetic, and mentally scarred starlet-in-the-offing Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is willing to do anything to become a star, while established, generally well liked leading man Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is slowly experiencing a fall from grace, and not just because he parties harder than anyone and has had more failed marriages than anyone around him.
Manny’s relationships with Jack and Nellie provides Babylon with the bulk of its substance, with the young man working as an assistant to both over the course of their careers. But there are also threads about an aspiring jazz musician with a lot of star power (Jovan Adepo), a bored gossip reporter (Jean Smart), and a Chinese woman (Li Jun Li) who has dual identities as an objectified sexpot and a writer of titles for the silent films of the day. While only Adepo’s musician really links back to Calva’s young go-getter in any meaningful way, all of these characters make up significant parts of Chazelle’s tapestry; a story about what happens to people living the high life once the party comes to a screeching end.
Babylon is sensory overload at every turn. Every few minutes there’s another recognizable character actor popping up in a small, but pivotal role. To list them all would take up the bulk of this review. There’s more casual drug use here than one could find in Scarface. Chazelle’s world is full of potty humour, misanthropy, and depravity that every character simply accepts as the price of doing business. It’s an epic so uncouth and amped up that Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land, First Man) calls his shot from the opening scene, offering up one of the grossest things in the film right out of the gate in a bid to give squeamish audience members an out. It’s pretty much saying, “If you don’t like this scene, just what until you see where I’m heading next.”
It’s bold and brash, but the approach is assured and effective. Chazelle never lets up for a second, to a point where Babylon can often feel overwhelming. The pacing of Chazelle’s latest – which is expertly edited for something this purposefully chaotic – exists on the bridge between past and present that the filmmaker is trying to illuminate. It’s a love letter to silent cinema, and a playful reflection of the pain many felt when sound came in and changed everything. Those films didn’t have time to waste, either while they were shooting (captured brilliantly here during a lengthy sequence where several movies are filming on the same desert backlot in tandem) or in the cinemas, where audiences could come and go as they pleased. It’s also crammed full of information in a style that speaks to the current depletion of attention spans. Babylon plays like a limited series that has been crammed into a single binge-worthy volume.
And maybe Babylon would’ve been better suited to a series format than a feature length extravaganza. As great as Adepo and Li’s performances are, their characters are lost amid the more star driven shuffle, which is a shame, since Babylon tries to show genuine concern for the marginalized peoples who are constantly on the periphery of the showbiz machine. There are so many major story beats here, that most of them aren’t allowed room to breathe or settle in unless they’re part of a larger, more elaborate set piece, with the only real downtime found in a great scene where Pitt’s down-on-his-luck has-been has a gutting heart to heart with Smart’s rag writer. But given the clarity of Chazelle’s vision and the propulsive nature of such an opulently designed and mounted production, Babylon still works in spite of its shortcomings.
Robbie has quickly become the go-to female performer whenever a director need to hire someone who can play crazy with the most amount of personality and devilish charm possible, and Pitt’s sadder take on the same sort of character he played in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a memorable example of an actor being in on the tragic joke of their character’s career, but both are examples of stars being hired to do what they do best. The film really belongs to Calva’s star making performance. Calva isn’t always playing the film’s conscience, but he certainly provides a necessary grounding force amid the maelstrom. Everyone in Babylon is nailing the sort of stereotype or archetype they’ve been hired to play, but Calva’s performance is the one that’s truly revelatory.
As one might expect from a film about the history of Tinseltown, Babylon is indebted to countless films and directors that came before it, with Boogie Nights and Singin’ in the Rain emerging as the most unlikely, but meaningful cultural touchstones. This certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and the material openly invites debate about the validity of it all, but there’s no denying that Babylon excels at delivering the biggest bang for one’s buck. It’s a film about the nature of excess told with rampant abandon; a throwback to the times when many considered film to be a lower form of art; when people who felt extreme stress and pressure to keep audiences entertained partied with equal, but opposite means of blowing off steam. Babylon isn’t a film interested in condemning, condoning, or even presenting itself as hard truth. It’s a kaleidoscope lens onto filmmaking history.
Babylon opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, December 23, 2022.
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