Babylon is a bloated movie about people who find life to be pointless if it’s not lived to excess. Filled with sex, drugs and mayhem, and running three hours (not including the end credits), it can be a lot to handle. It contains a bunch of interlocking stories, a large cast, several themes and combines comedy with tragedy. It is overflowing with the dark-side of old Hollywood and the (capital I) Importance of film. Some of the themes don’t work, it is definitely too long and there are a couple of subplots that end up feeling unnecessary. In short, it is pretty messy. Writer/director Damien Chazelle crams so much of everything into his epic that it is practically bursting at the seams. Yet, even while I knew it was trying to do too much and was going too far, I loved this movie.
Spanning the late 1920s until the mid-1930s, this is a love letter to the cinema. It also pulls absolutely no punches as to how heartless the industry can be. Babylon may play best for those with a passion for the movies and knowledge of its history. Not that other viewers would be lost, they just might not be as interested, especially after they get worn-down by all the debauchery (there is a whole lot of it). The performances are good, the production design is excellent and the soundtrack somehow effectively evokes multiple time periods at once. What makes this memorable is Chazelle’s seeming unwillingness to compromise his vision in any way. The result is bold, uneven, frustrating and very entertaining. It may not be great but, since it is so many other fun things, does it need to be?
The bulk of the plot centers on three different characters. There is Jack Conrad, a silent film star who is convinced audiences want something new. There is Nellie LaRoy, a dreamer, coming to Hollywood knowing she is a star. Then there is Manny, a low-level studio employee who would do anything to get on a set. Babylon follows these three (among others) through the transition to sound and the institution of the Hays Code, charting their ups/downs as the business changed forever.
To be fair, these narratives have not been perfectly devised. Manny’s is probably the strongest because Chazelle really seems to want us to see Hollywood through his eyes. It can be a horribly hard place that eats people alive. However, the finished product makes it worth the pain. His is the more grounded part of the plot, though the events leading directly to his final destination are pretty weak (his last scene, while unquestionably manipulative, worked on me anyway). Diego Calva brings the right mixture of wide-eyed innocent and hustler to the role. This is probably a breakout for him.
Nellie is played by Margot Robbie as a force of nature. She is reckless and uninhibited in a way that makes it clear why people are drawn to her. Robbie is very good, yet the character is such an obvious cliché that the writing eventually fails her.
Brad Pitt gives the best performance as a star trying to figure out how to keep himself on top. Pitt is so smooth and charismatic, conveying a love for what he does, as well as a resentment aimed at the “cultured elite” who think movies are low class. His arc is also familiar, but Jack, unlike Nellie, feels more real than symbolic.
Babylon is at its strongest when Chazelle focuses on behind the scenes stuff, blending fact/legend/fiction together. The two best sequences involve making movies. The first shows all three main characters dealing with on-set issues at the same time. The second is about the juggling required to make the early sound films. This is clearly where Chazelle’s heart was. The agony and ecstasy of filmmaking just drips from the screen. When he leaves the set to delve into their personal lives, he is not as successful.
The most egregious missed opportunity is Sidney Palmer, a black jazz musician played by Jovan Adepo. Sidney has to swallow so much racism from an industry that could not possibly care less about him in order to get his break. There is a ton to unpack with this topic. Chazelle introduces it, then never truly engages with it. The same can be said for Lady Fay, a Chinese cabaret singer played by Li Jun Li, who is beloved by her peers, while being exploited for her exoticness. Chazelle chooses to spend the majority of his time on the more familiar character types, which is a big shame.
Undoubtedly, this review is confusing. I started by saying I loved it, yet I have mostly been criticizing it. That is the movie critic part of me warring with the movie lover part of me. Usually, they are in synch. Not so with Babylon. My critic side says: It’s an overlong, self-indulgent mess that bites off way more than it even intends to chew. My film nerd side says: Okay, so what? The highs are really high and the lows are at least overly-ambitious misses. Chazelle’s self-indulgence is both a strength and a weakness, pushing all my history geek buttons when it works and failing entertainingly when it doesn’t.
This internal struggle makes it hard for me to rate Babylon, therefore I have decided to give it two ratings. One to honor the part of me bothered by its many flaws and another to honor the part of me that gleefully soaked in the spectacle.
Critic Ben: 3 out of 5
Movie Lover Ben: 4¼ out of 5
Diego Calva as Manny Torres
Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy
Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad
Jovan Adepo as Sindey Palmer
Jean Smart as Elinor St. John
Li Jun Li as Lady Fay Zhu
Directed and Written by Damien Chazelle