Ahh yes, movies about movies! Love letters to Hollywood! One of the more divisive film genres has produced plenty of great work over the years: Singin’ In The Rain, Boogie Nights, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood to name a few. What makes them so interesting is that they tend to be passion projects that attract a lot of high end talent though one thing that Hollywood can’t seem to get out of its mind is that the rest of the world doesn’t always share their fascination and affection for how the sausage is made. Babylon takes on a tall task of creating a period piece about one of the more interesting times in Hollywood’s history: the transition from silent to talking pictures. What entails is a bonkers story about the rise and fall of those within the industry with an in-depth look at excess and celebrity.
Babylon starts off strong. Within the first 30 seconds you know you’re in for a wild ride. The opening sequence is a hell of an introduction for Manny (Diego Calva) and how he is able to talk his way in or out of any situation as he is tasked with delivering an elephant to the top of a hill for a Hollywood party. Said party is a scene that would be the result if Eyes Wide Shut and The Wolf of Wall Street had a baby. Among the sex, music, and general debauchery Manny meets uninvited aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) who becomes the life of the party after sneaking her way in. Also at the party is leading man Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) who draws the attention of everyone in the room though its clearly not his first rodeo. Through a chance encounter Manny, ambitious to be doing any line of work in the film industry, is tasked with driving an inebriated Jack home where the two strike up a working relationship with Manny becoming his new driver. From there the story follows Nellie’s rise to fame, Manny climbing the ladder among Hollywood producers, and Jack’s struggle to hang on to his career.
As has been said in almost every review for Babylon, it’s a lot of movie. The first half of the three hours and change runtime is filled with some of director Damien Chazelle’s finest work. Seeing Manny and Nellie make their respective climbs are a joy to see and anyone who loves the art of moviemaking should get a kick out of a number of scenes focused on the struggles and constant problem solving of working on set. One scene in particular involving the performance and technical nightmares of shooting is as funny as anything seen on screen this year. Aside from the love of filmmaking there’s also a whole lotta partying going on in this film. Whatever people say about Babylon, it is undoubtedly a gorgeous looking film and the crew should be proud of creating something truly remarkable. However…
The story seriously sputters out by the end of the film, making the last hour or so a complete slog. The character arcs are all predictable and have been seen before in almost every movie about fame and fortune. What starts off as a fun and reckless good time ultimately becomes just pure recklessness. Ironically, the film likely could have benefitted greatly if it shied away from its three main leads and dove more into jazz musician Sydney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) or Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li). While these two certainly get a moment or two to shine, we ultimately learn very little about their characters which confuses those of us who saw their names in most of the marketing material for the film. For me the moment the film jumps the shark involves a snake and its never quite able to clear the venom from its blood stream. Regarding the final act, credit to Chazelle for really going for it but it just never worked for me.
The cast is pretty incredible throughout the film. Calva is the real standout to me though Robbie is at the top of her game and Pitt is cast perfectly as the aging leading man. Like Adepo and Li, Jean Smart has frustratingly little to do even if she crushes the material she’s given, completely dominating her big moment in the script. There a number of notable cameos and minor roles that do leave an impact including Spike Jonze (Her) as an angry German director, Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) as a fixer, Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight) as Nellie’s father and manager, P.J. Byrne (The Wolf of Wall Street) as an on-edge assistant director, and Toby Maguire (Spider-Man) as a vaudevillian crime boss. Going into this film one performance I was particularly excited for was Maguire’s but in my opinion he’s perhaps the heartbeat, or lack there of, at the film’s lowest point.
I’m very curious how Babylon is going to age. On one hand, many scenes from the first 90 minutes have what will surely become iconic images among movie nerds like myself. The finale in particular is ambitious and has already divided many but perhaps it will age well with repeated viewings and time. I walked out of that film thinking I had just seen 2022’s equivalent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, albeit with a tighter ensemble. It will also be interesting to see how this film affects Chazelle’s career moving forward. While it will certainly contend for a few Oscars but this film’s massive budget and so-far catastrophically bad box office returns have left people asking if the young director is just the next Baz Luhrmann.
Overall, Babylon is a film with plenty of standout moments but all the good it has is countered with disjointed storylines, excessive runtimes, cocaine, and lots of screaming. The ending will frustrate many but even if it doesn’t stick the landing Babylon is certainly a fun ride.
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