Josh Reviews Babylon
Damien Chazelle’s Babylon depicts the world of Hollywood in the late twenties and early thirties, the time when sound was first introduced into movies. We follow the shifting fortunes of several individuals at different levels of success (or lack thereof) in Hollywood. Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is a young Mexican immigrant, who we first meet working as the hired help at a luxurious debauched Hollywood party. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is a fearless young woman from New Jersey who comes from nothing but is determined to make it big as a movie star. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is a handsome Hollywood movie star at the height of his powers. Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) is a young African-American trumpet player with tremendous talent. As we follow their shifting fortunes, the film takes us on an exploration of the dirty underbelly of Hollywood and how the sausage gets made — the lies and misbehavior behind the glitzy shiny smiling Hollywood stars and their movies that entertain and enrapture the masses.
Damien Chazelle made Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man. All three are terrific films, so I was excited when I first heard about Babylon. But I missed it when it was released in the (usual) end-of-the-year glut of prestige films at the end of 2022, and then I was discouraged when I heard word that the film was bad. I remained eager to see for myself, and I’m happy to have had a chance to catch up with the film.
This is a bizarre movie, that’s for sure. It clocks in at well over three hours in length, and to say that it’s over the top would be an understatement. The bacchanal bash that opens the film is an example of the film’s problems. The sequence is executed at a high level, with gloriously designed costumes, props, and sets/locations, and dizzyingly impressive uninterrupted camera moves. But it’s so over the top that it pulled me out of the movie. This isn’t just a debaucherous party — it’s got to be the most insanely debaucherous party ever put on film. I have a hard time believing there was ever truly any party like this, and that disbelief pulled me out of the story. Additionally, with sequence after sequence like this, going on for over three hours, I found the movie somewhat punishing to watch. (For example, there is way too much on-screen feces and urine in this film to suit me.) It was all “too much of a muchness” (to quote the writer Ira Steven Behr), at least for me.
Here’s another example: there are multiple deaths in the film, either during the process of making movies or in Hollywood-adjacent settings. It felt like the movie was laying it on too thick for me — I can believe that there could be one death due to carelessness/greed on the part of the movie-makers seen in the film. But death after death? It felt unbelievable to me, and pulled me out of the story.
I found it undercut the film that this movie, which is all about exposing Hollywood excess and misbehavior, is in itself a victim of unbridled excess. The scale of the film is enormous, and it’s impressive. But time and again — particularly in that lengthy opening party sequence — I felt the film was TOO big. It felt to me like it was far bigger and crazier than it needed to be. So this film about Hollywood excess feels like an example of Hollywood excess, just of a slightly different kind. I think that hurts the story that Mr. Chazelle set out to tell.
At the same time, the film contains some magnificent performances by the terrific cast, and also a number of spectacular sequences beautifully orchestrated by Mr. Chazelle and his team. There’s a lot in this film to enjoy and be impressed by! Babylon is for sure not, in my opinion, a film that can easily be ignored or written off. There is a lot of beautiful filmmaking in this movie.
Take the sequence in which we see Margot Robbie trying to act out a scene in one of the first movies with sound. She and the director are constantly getting stymied by the technical problems with the new equipment for recording sound. It’s an extraordinarily stressful sequence; Mr. Chazelle masterfully ratchets the tension up and up and up. Margot Robbie’s performance is incredible; we feel ever ounce of her anxiety. This is one of the best sequences I’ve seen in a movie this year! I also loved the sequence that builds towards Brad Pitt’s character Jack Conrad filming a climactic scene with hundreds of extras just as the sun is setting. Here too, Mr. Chazelle beautifully creates a feeling of stress in the audience as we feel the filmmakers’ (and Manny’s) increasing race-against-time desperation… and then we feel their euphoria when they successfully get the shot.
I’ve always said that Brad Pitt is a far better actor than he has to be, with his movie-star good looks. He’s fantastic here as Jack Conrad. He set up Jack beautifully as the king of his world in the film’s early going. Then, as we see Jack confronted with the challenge of transitioning into the talkies, Mr. Pitt beautifully takes us inside his pain as the air is slowly let out of his balloon. It’s a great character-arc (one that had me thinking of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…, a film in which Mr. Putt also appeared!) and Mr. Pitt hits it out of the park.
Margo Robbie has had a compelling on-screen presence ever since she came to the world’s notice in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and she is mesmerizing here as Nellie LaRoy. Nellie has a white-hot laser focus on her singular goal: being the star she already believes herself to be. The first instant we see this character on screen, it’s clear that her story isn’t going to end well. Ms. Robbie is able to skillfully be both funny and heartbreakingly tragic. It’s a fantastic performance.
I was not familiar with the work of Diego Calva, who plays Manny Torres, before seeing this film, but I’m now locked in as a fan. This is a tremendous performance. Manny is the every-man of the film; it’s through his eyes that we see Hollywood, and its stars and hangers-on. And so we root for Manny as he gets some initial successes and rises in power and prestige in Hollywood… and we fear for him as well. Manny is the heart of the film, and Mr. Calva is tremendous.
Also wonderful is Jovan Adepo as trumpet-player Sidney Palmer. I was rooting for Sidney just as much as I was rooting for Manny. Mr. Adepo is wonderful. He plays so much of his character’s arc just through his beautiful wide eyes. (I’m thinking particularly of the wrenching scene late in the film in which Sidney is asked to do something humiliating on camera; Mr. Adepo tells us everything we need to know about what Sidney is thinking and feeling inside, just through his blazing eyes.)
Jean Smart (Watchmen, Mare of Easttown, Hacks) is wonderful as powerful columnist Eleanor St. John. (Her final scene, going toe-to-toe with Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad, is a powerhouse of a sequence.) Li Jun Li is fantastic, subtle and moving, in her performance as Fay Zhu, a talented singer and dancer who gets ground up by the Hollywood machine. The film also contains terrific performances by: Max Minghella (Syriana, The Social Network) plays studio head Irving Thalberg; Flea plays Jack Conrad’s right-hand man; Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy, Cowboys & Aliens, director of Don’t Worry Darling) plays one of Jack’s ex-wives, Ina Conrad; Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) plays Jack’s third wife, theatre-actor Estelle; Tobey Maguire plays powerful (and somewhat crazed) gangster James McCay; Lukas Haas (Mars Attacks!, Inception, First Man) plays Jack’s friend George Munn; Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm) plays studio executive Don Wallach; Spike Jonze plays German director Otto Van Strassberger; Samara Weaving (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) plays Nellie’s rival, actress Constance Moore; Eric Roberts (Sal Maroni in The Dark Knight) plays Nellie’s self-destructive father; I was also happy to see Ethan Suplee (Chasing Amy, Dogma) and Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous). I’m only scratching the surface of this film’s cast!
Babylon is a movie that spends as much time professing its love for the act of movie-making as it does condemning the behavior of most of the people involved in that process. The film contains a number of lovely monologues about the power of cinema. (Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad delivers several of these speeches, as a way of arguing that his profession has merit as art, something about which his theatre-trained wife is dubious.) I love these moments! I, too, am in love with movies, and so it’s fun to watch a film that seems to share that love, and that is as interested as I am in the behind-the-scenes process of how movies get made. But Babylon also seems to be disgusted with that process. It’s somewhat incongruous to me, though at the same time I appreciate that the film tells both sides of the story, as it were.
Speaking of Babylon’s love of movie-making: the closing montage, with clips from many great and famous works of cinema that would come in the years and decades to follow the 1920’s & 30’s-set events of this film, feels a little pompous to me. This movie that opens with a shitting elephant is also a salute to the entire history of cinema? I think Mr. Chazelle’s reach exceeds his grasp here. But, at the same time, I admire his ambition. Babylon doesn’t entirely work for me, but I’m glad to have seen it, and I look forward to whatever Mr. Chazelle does next. (I hope he doesn’t have to spend too long in movie-jail after this movie’s failure to catch fire at the box office.)
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