There are portions of writer/director Damien Chazelle’s Babylon that manage to break away from reality and function as pure, chaotic cinema. This epic, 3-hour period film features notable set pieces depicting a wild version of what it means to be on various film sets or attending parties attended by the wealthy and most adored celebrities (sometimes lining up with the darkest ends of the spectrum as well). Naturally, films of this size can’t sustain this level of excitement, especially when it comes to layering in arcs for this ensemble cast. I only wish the film had more to grasp onto in its less forceful moments. For all its ways of celebrating and objecting to Hollywood, it’s a rather obvious film, relying on thin characters and attempting to convince itself that excess is the same as daring. Babylon is too stylish and packed with too many other strong aspects, yet it’s not quite the excellent take on 1920s La La Land that one would hope.
This film revolves around a few specific people. We meet them all in a 30-minute opening sequence set at a lavish party. How do you know it’s lavish? Diego Calva’s Manny Torres is introduced as a Mexican-American assistant working on getting an elephant escorted to the mansion. Making sure a point is made early on, the elephant defecates on one of the “little people” helping him (and this is not the last time Chazelle opts for a poop joke).
Also at the party – Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt). He’s the highest-paid silent film star in this movie’s universe and modeled after actors such as Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino. There will be a reckoning for how he prides himself on his accomplishments and many wives, but for now, everyone loves being around Jack, whether or not his skills can take him beyond his presence in silent films.
Notably and literally crashing the party later on, is Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie). Loosely inspired by Clara Bow, LaRoy (not her real name) believes she was born to be a star and acts as such, which includes hard drinking and coke-snorting. We’ll see her picked out of the crowd and placed on a film set, where her skill on camera becomes instantly apparent. However, if most stars play up ego, LeRoy is all about acting on her id.
If there’s a glue that really holds all of this together, it’s ultimately Manny. His dreams of being on a film set are reached early during a particularly chaotic day featuring many films being shot at once. This includes a sword and sandals epic directed by Spike Jonze as what appears to be a stand-in for Erich von Stroheim, who, in a pivotal moment, will need Manny to retrieve a camera before sunlight runs out. Manny has a connection to all Babylon’s main players on this set; in one of the few times they will all be in the same area at once.
The benefit of a scene like this is seeing what Chazelle can accomplish as a talented filmmaker with a unique presentation style. The rapid-fire pacing, editing and camera tricks, and pure comedy that comes from a tension-filled sequence are when Babylon is at its best. So why does this film still come up short? Well, part of it comes back to Manny.
Make no mistake, Calva is terrific in this role. As a performer who will be new to many, Calva does all that’s needed to bring out plenty from an emotional place and match it to the drama or comedy unfolding. However, it’s incredibly curious to see Chazelle do next to nothing with the fact that Manny is a Mexican man interacting with 1920s Hollywood’s high society. Given Manny’s rise from PA to studio exec, it’s baffling to see a film that wants to delve into the ugly side of Hollywood yet hold back from having a significant thought about this man’s heritage to the point of him only being Mexican when the plot requires it.
Similar things can be said about two of the film’s other key POC characters, who are largely left on the sidelines. Based on the movie I watched, Jovan Adepo plays Sidney Palmer, a jazz trumpet player who has no other life outside of this skill. One compelling scene finds Sidney being forced to commit an uncomfortable act involving his skin coloring. It makes me wonder how this was not more of the movie. Li Jun Li also stars as Lady Fay Zhu, a cabaret singer who is eventually pushed out of the industry for various reasons, but before being able to explore them, the film essentially forgets all about her.
Being an ensemble film with two major movie stars to serve, it’s not as though I expected equal time to be given to all. Still, it only goes so far when those other leads only have so much to offer. Pitt is fine here, though it’s a mix of trying to find empathy for this cad he’s playing and realizing he’s riffing on other similarly tuned characters he’s played before. Robbie is as strong as Calva is and has the largest trajectory, but it can become redundant to see so much spiraling when the film has little else on its mind.
While La La Land had Chazelle channeling Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger musicals, along with the work of Jacques Demy, Babylon has the director finding his inner Scorsese and matching it up to Singin’ in the Rain. Nothing wrong with that, especially when one can be this visually inspired when echoing some of the greatest works out there. Still, I’d hope to get something more out of it by the end. As a B-side to Chazelle’s previous award-winning musical, I’m all for seeing him tackle a far more cynical depiction of the industry. With that in mind, even while directing the hell out of this movie, I can’t say I walked away with much of a new grasp on this period or even his own cinematic obsessions that were previously explored in Whiplash and First Man to varying degrees.
Still, it’s not as though this film doesn’t deliver plenty of bang for its buck. Minus the irony of Paramount funding a film decrying the lengths studios will go to satisfy actors and highly valued filmmakers, there is so much to take in from a sprawling epic standpoint. Linus Sandgren’s camera work is dizzying in the best of ways, considering so many elaborate sequences caught in long, detailed takes. Justin Hurwitz’s score is as engrossing as one would expect at this point, with “Voodoo Mama” forming an excellent backbone for the movie. Were there to be fewer attempts to provoke the audience with its take on depravity (ranging from raging parties to snake fights), this would be easy to recommend based on its depiction of historical context alone.
I wish the effort to put together this world matched a story more proficient than a standard rise-and-fall arc. Spreading that standard across several characters didn’t help either. It does allow for some standout moments though. Late in the game, Tobey Maguire emerges as a particularly threatening figure, leading characters through a dark odyssey and making one wonder when Chazelle will gear up to direct something even more fantastical and brutal.
Other highlights should be the moments where the past and future begin pushing against each other. It’s not hard to see where the sins of the past are clearly being repeated. That’s an aspect of Babylon that I wish was reflected more. It also stands to reason that there is hope, as Chazelle is a filmmaker who loves the art form and wants to be comfortably among those who similarly know the excellence that can come from it. However, trying to convey that in an out-of-place ending montage doesn’t have the impact it was hoping for in a film that doesn’t seem to know how to conclude.
As noted, Babylon is the work of a filmmaker who knows how to present stunning work on screen. It also feels like a director let loose by a studio to do whatever he wanted, with free reign. There’s enough to appreciate, though stronger choices could have been made regarding the characters chosen to represent this time period. There’s a clash of ideas at play, which can sometimes yield great results, but it’s not quite going down like smooth jazz.