Hollywood sure loves to point the camera on itself and this year we’ve got a plethora of them. Coming out of the pandemic where movie theaters were forced to shut down, perhaps filmmakers are feeling sentimental about the industry and want to remind viewers of the power of cinema. Damien Chazelle’s BABYLON is touted as a love letter to pre-Hays Code Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties, but it’s actually more of a cautionary tale. I mean, within minutes into the movie, we see a character literally drowned by an elephant dung as it’s being pushed up a hill to perform at a Hollywood exec’s house party.
The title itself refers to the ancient Babylonian society where self-indulgence, unbridled excess, and hedonism are virtues to live by. Chazelle doesn’t just show an example of what outrageous decadence looks like, he revels in a half-hour insane party scene, filled with full-frontal nudity, all kinds of debauchery, and lewd acts galore. As if elephant diarrhea isn’t filthy/grotesque enough for ya, well Chazelle’s got cocaine-fueled orgy scenes that last a half hour before the opening credits appear!
The one thing that keeps me from being completely repulsed by all the vulgarity is the man responsible for getting the darn elephant to the party. Manny Torres (breakout star Diego Calva), the son of Mexican immigrants with big ambitions to work in the film industry becomes a jack-of-all-trades to achieve it. For the most part, we’re seeing the crazy world through his eyes as he keeps rising through the ranks thanks to his resourcefulness, never failing to do any task given to him.
I immediately connect with Manny right from the moment he meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an aspiring actress with a grand ambition that matches her insatiable appetite for cocaine. It’s apparent Manny’s got a crush on Nellie by the time the party is over and she drunkenly drives away after landing a coveted audience. Sometimes nabbing a role is all about being in the right place at the right time
That same morning Manny meets Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt, channeling Rudolph Valentino) when he’s tasked with driving the drunken silent-film matinee idol home. Soon Manny’s adventure in Hollywood begins as a studio production assistant (we all know lowly PAs work the hardest in the business!)… the poor guy is flung into the chaos of a silent movie set of a big sword-and-sandal epic with a bunch of extras. Manny’s path continues to cross with Nellie and Jack who are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Nellie’s star is on the rise while Jack’s glory days are behind him. There’s a scene between Jack and a gossip columnist (Jean Smart, terrific actress but her British accent is awful!) who confirms what Jack already knows, but she tells him to hold his head high and just be happy that ‘he’s got a good run.’ But of course it’s predictable what happens next given the nihilistic sensibilities of people with no higher purpose to sustain them.
Chazelle has said in interviews that his film is ‘the evil cousin or evil twin’ to Singing In The Rain which also chronicles the pain of the silent-to-sound transition. The palpable homage to that film is quite amusing, but this is taking the ‘darker companion piece’ to a whole new level in terms of its depiction of moral depravity and outrageous excess. I think the film did a tremendous job showing the notoriety of that tumultuous period, though at the expense of character development. I find it hard to connect with most of the characters apart from Manny, as they’re one-dimensional that they easily get lost amidst the visual gags.
Essentially there are four main characters to follow: Manny, Nellie, Jack, and lastly, Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a gifted jazz musician whose on-screen career gets a boost thanks to the advent of sound cinema but faces blatant racism that’s devastating to watch. Out of the four, Sidney’s story is the least realized, his journey is treated almost as an afterthought. Li Jun Li’s character Lady Fay is barely explored either, her character serves more as a device to tell Nellie’s journey.
Speaking of jazz, I have to mention about the music here by Chazelle’s longtime collaborator Justin Hurwitz. I read that he avoids 1920s jazz sound, going with more rock ’n roll and dance music style. I think his score sounds faithful to the period while still feels modern, but at times I was distracted by the motif similarities to La La Land, for which he won two Oscars. I guess it’s not uncommon that composers ‘borrow’ their own work.
While there are glimmers of greatness, it’s apparent Chazelle is struggling to juggle so many balls in the air with this ambitious movie. The weaving in and out of multiple storylines isn’t always smooth and the film’s energy dips drastically from one act to the next. The $80-million price tag is shown in the elaborate set pieces, intricate costumes, and the huge number of extras in a few of the massive scenes. At over 3-hours long, the movie should’ve been paced like a runner running a marathon, but Babylon begins with a rapid sprint but then struggles to sustain itself over its running time. It’s also bloated with extraneous scenes that double down on the debauchery shock and awe instead of giving the characters more depth. It’s too bad as the actors are committed to their roles and did their best to keep us engaged.
Robbie is especially fearless as a struggling actress from a humble beginning whose meteoric rise becomes more of a curse than a blessing. Pitt shows he’s still got movie star charisma but his character is actually not all that interesting to me. Calva is the MVP of the film for me, he can convey so much emotion without saying a word as he observes and soaks in the business he desperately wants to break into. Manny tries to retain his own humanity and inherent goodness despite his growing success, and his earnest feelings for Nellie is the only heartfelt thing in the movie. I often find Chazelle’s characters a bit cold and lack real chemistry (notably in La La Land), so it’s nice to see someone worth rooting for here. On the opposite spectrum, Tobey Maguire would win the ‘creepiest cameo’ award as a ghoulish gangster, befitting the vile secret underbelly he calls the asshole of Los Angeles.
The writer/director might have intended Babylon as a condemnation of all that excess but ends up often glorifying it in the process. Being only 37 and still holding the title of the youngest director to win the Best Director Oscar at 32, perhaps this is Chazelle’s way of showing just what he could accomplish. He even crafts an ending that shows a montage of his favorite movies (which amusingly includes a blockbuster sequel that currently tops this week’s box office), with Manny tearing up as he watches it while reflecting on his past. I find the scene moving when I see it from the character’s perspective, but the montage itself feels jarring given that the whole movie has been one epic slam against that very industry.
In any case, I applaud Chazelle’s boundless ambition in bringing such an extravagant idea to life (which has apparently already been chiseled down to save cost), but in the end, I think he bites more than he can chew. I won’t be rooting for this come award season, but Babylon sure takes the award of the most intentionally revolting and craziest movie of the year!
Have you seen BABYLON? What did you think?