Babylon is one of those Oscar movies that’s undeniably entertaining and a big swing, but is far from a masterpiece.
WRITTEN BY ANDREW KORPAN / DECEMBER 16, 2022
Well, Mom…at least I don’t have to try cocaine! The terms “adrenaline rush” and “acid trip” have been used to describe films for ages, and while I cannot personally speak from the experience of snorting a powdery white substance, I can confidently say that Damien Chazelle’s latest film, Babylon, is the closest I have (and will) come to doing so.
A tale about excess, success and facing the music, portions of this three-hour epic are pure bliss that makes you think to yourself “this is cinema”. On the other hand, its self-indulgence can grow tiresome — even if partly intentional — and features a plot that’s far from coherent. Chazelle feels like one of the last of a dying breed of directors that make non-IP films that are special (Robert Eggers also comes to mind), and both have now made flawed, but successful jumps to their biggest films yet. Babylon is big, it’s loud and it only grows fonder on the heart with more time removed from it.
Babylon is the personification of excess. The obvious comparisons that any “film bro” can draw are The Wolf of Wall Street, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Singin’ in the Rain, but there are even sprinkles of Triangle of Sadness and Downton Abbey: A New Era, believe it or not, throughout. Babylon is mostly the story of Manny Torres (Diego Calva) but also follows two juxtaposed actors: Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), an aging leading man who’s forced to face the music during the transition from silent films to talkies, and Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an up-and-coming star who has always been one, according to her. Nellie has the opposite trajectory of Jack as the talkies become the new phenomenon, while Manny, a man that she met at the first house party (full of boobs, cocaine and sex; lots of sex) in the film, is a wide-eyed ambitious kid who just wants to get his foot in the door of the film industry, also gets on the fast track to success and works his way up the ladder in a matter of years.
But the faster they rise, the harder they fall. You see, while the success and paraphernalia of the rich presented in Babylon may seem like a luxurious lifestyle, nothing lasts forever. Jack’s got the most tragic story as the washed-up actor and all. He’s MGM’s biggest asset up until the talkies arise (he then becomes their biggest burden) and has a hard time accepting the stone-cold truth: he’s washed. Even Charlie Chaplin was able to somewhat pivot and make The Great Dictator — one of cinema’s best — yet Jack Conrad will never get that chance. It’s quite ironic, isn’t it? Pitt goes from playing a washed-up stuntman to an even more washed-up actor (Rick Dalton) who also has a hard time facing the music to now being the person in Dalton’s shoes. If that’s not poetic, I don’t know what is.
As stated, Manny begins as a wide-eyed kid but he slowly sells his soul to Hollywood. It’s a slow progression much like Michael Corleone’s turn throughout The Godfather that’s further highlighted in The Godfather Part II, and that hardened soul faces a bevy of issues with Nellie and the pressures of the beast that the film industry. I’ve never seen Calva in anything else, but this performance makes him a far more intriguing actor to watch in years to come.
There are only a limited number of certainties in life, but Robbie turning in good performances is one of them. Nellie is yet another American character for Robbie where she uses a New York accent (Nellie is from NY), but she adds flavor to a rather one-note character. She’s at her best paired with Calva, just look at their scene at the party or just about anything in the second half of the film, but she really is a one of a kind talent. Robbie would be a bombshell in the 1920s as she is in the 2020s, just see the scenes where they show her in-film performances. It’s oddly believable that she’s an actress still getting her feet wet in her first few moments on set before having to learn the ropes again once the talkies came into play. Also, shoutout to Chazelle for giving us the “film bro” equivalent of the Spider-Man pointing meme with Samara Weaving and Robbie.
The large ensemble features the likes of Olivia Wilde, P.J. Byrne, Flea, Chloe Fineman and Tobey Maguire, but their roles range from opening scene cameos to the stealing the spotlight in the best sequences in the film. Byrne is able to play an even more coked-up character than his in The Wolf of Wall Street — hard to believe, right? — as the assistant director on Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton)’s set. His performance is just magnetic and has a similar appeal to that of Al Pacino in Heat in that his bubble can burst on the flip of a dime. Hamilton, Chazelle’s wife, is actually great as the first director of Nellie’s career. The combined look of exhaustion and frustration after Nellie’s Singin’ in the Rain-like troubles hitting her marks or speaking in the right timbre is just spot on and only intensifies with every passing take. I imagine that unlike one of Jack’s many wives in the film, Chazelle didn’t need to give suggestions on her performance.
Maguire may not be an acting standout in this crowded cast, but his character, James McKay, has the best sequence in the film. Without going too much into detail, he leads Manny and The Count (Rory Scovel) into the belly of the beast that is one of L.A.’s most underground “parties” (if you can call it that). The twists and turns that come with every floor you go down harken back to Under the Silver Lake, Barbarian and many other noir films of the past and are inherently tension-filled as Maguire uneasily laughs and is amused at every strange attraction seen while delivering a line like, “Oh, I guess it’s not this floor,” with an innocent glee (as innocent as someone like Maguire’s character can be). Given that we really don’t see much of Maguire these days, it’s always great to see him leave a lasting impression as someone not dressed like a “cool youth pastor.”
As would be the case with any film over three hours long, Babylon has a hard time staying focused. While the 30-minute house party cold open is greatly entertaining, it feels like every scene after it is always looking for a reason to become a quick-cutting, heart-thumping and head-aching sequence. The zaniness works to a degree, but it also falls flat like at the end of the film when Manny has an epiphany while watching Singin’ in the Rain. It’s the same type of sensory overload seen in Moonage Daydream, even sharing some of the same cinematic references, but there was a method to that madness. Whether you want to blame it on the Dolby screening room or Chazelle and his sound mixer, you’ll leave Babylon with a headache and a rough adjustment back to reality. Movies are called an “escape” by Nellie. Perhaps this and some other sequences are too much of one.
Vis-à-vie the runtime, Babylon is long. Was it completely necessary to have a film over three hours long? I won’t go as far as to say that I was ever bored by the film because it has
the Drive My Car factor, but it does feel like a story that could have been told in 50 less minutes. What I mean by the Drive My Car factor is that Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 2021 masterpiece was incrediblely gripping despite the fact that some sequences — such as the cold open — can last anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes at any given point. Despite that, the dialogue is so well-written that you’re riveted by every word. Babylon may not be on the same level script-wise, but the superfluity of every scene is attention-grabbing if nothing else.
Babylon is one of those Oscar movies that’s undeniably entertaining and a big swing, but is far from a masterpiece. Chazelle marches to the beat of his own drum and is one of the best things Hollywood has going for it with his original films, but Babylon takes excess to the highest degree including his runtime and story. There’s fat on the bones of this interesting story about some of Hollywood’s earliest stars. It’s a technical achievement and it will be hard for Chazelle to top himself, at least in terms of scope, yet it doesn’t always gracefully come down from its dizzying highs.