PLOT: At the dawn of the sound era, a tawdry collection of people working in silent films must reckon with their rapidly changing fortunes as the talkies, and a new strict morality, become commonplace.
REVIEW: Within the first ten minutes of Babylon, you get an anus-first view of an elephant having diarrhea and then, shortly after, a golden shower performed by a woman on a very content customer. This is all lovingly shot by director Damien Chazelle and his DP Linus Sandgren, as if to announce, “hey – if you thought The Wolf of Wall Street was over the top, get a load of this!” As it turns out, the brown and the golden showers are only the beginning of Chazelle’s nightmarish descent into the seemingly depraved world of 1920s Hollywood. As Al Jolson said in The Jazz Singer, the movie that spells doom to many of the characters here, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
The problem with Babylon is that Chazelle, in trying to shock the audience, occasionally loses focus on what should be a devastating tale of broken dreams. Given their on-screen behaviour, none of the characters Chazelle depicts feel human, as we really only see them indulge in wacky, drug-fuelled shenanigans. None of them feels like they actually care about the movies, and we know so little about them that by the time their stock starts to fall, you will care less than you should.
However, that’s not to say that there isn’t some bravura filmmaking on display. Chazelle structures the film as a series of extended set pieces, some of which are more effective than others. The one that will likely get the most buzz is the debauched opening party, which introduces us to our three leads. There’s Diego Calva’s Manny Torres, a Mexican-American who works as a fixer for studio bigwigs, helping keep their parties stacked with cocaine, women, and even elephants, even if he aspires to work on a film set. He gets his chance when he crosses paths with Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad, a debauched A-lister with a slew of ex-wives. Manny also meets Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy, a party-crasher who, wouldn’t you know it, also turns out to be an aspiring actress.
Notably, the two characters Pitt and Robbie play are thinly veiled versions of real people. Pitt’s Conrad is clearly based on John Gilbert, who was one of the biggest stars of the silent era, but whose career tanked due to the advent of sound. Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy is based on the actress for whom publicists coined the phrase “the it girl,” Clara Bow. Other characters in the movie are based on Anna May Wong, Fatty Arbuckle, and more.
With a hefty three-hour running time, you’d assume Chazelle has plenty of time to flesh out his characters, but curiously the opposite is true. He seems so preoccupied with his set pieces that none, other than perhaps Pitt’s tragic Conrad, have any depth. It’s sacrilege to say, but Babylon would have been better served as a six-hour limited series, with the film’s episodic nature making it almost feel like a show that’s been cut down. Robbie, Pitt, and Calva are all good, but their performances feel two-dimensional, as you never learn all that much about them. For much of the running time, Pitt and Robbie come off as cartoonish, although Pitt finds some substance in his role as the movie continues. When Pitt tries to be funny, he’s bad, with Conrad’s drunken shenanigans feeling like outtakes from a bad period comedy. But, when he gets serious towards the end, he’s great. For her part, Robbie is most arresting when depicting Nellie’s on-screen presence in the sequences that focus on the filmmaking aspect of the era. While Calva is getting a big star build-up for his role, Manny is ultimately two-dimensional and more just an observer of what’s happening in the movie than an active participant.
Some of the sequences are terrific, particularly the second major one, which centres on Nellie’s first day working on a movie. You really get an idea of how chaotic silent film shooting could be, and this chunk of the movie is masterful. Taken on its own, it’s the most dynamic piece of directing I’ve seen all year, but the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to it. A sequence depicting how hard it was to shoot with sound was done better and in significantly less screen time in Singing in the Rain, and the final violent act feels like a copycat version of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Long Way Down (One Last Thing)” sequence from Boogie Nights. It even has Tobey Maguire in an extended cameo as a VD-riddled crime boss, with some David Lynch-style imagery that takes the film into more surreal territory.
This makes Babylon hard to classify, as it tries to do too much and too little. One aspect that will no doubt be controversial is how Chazelle puts in stories focusing on Jovan Adepo’s jazz trumpeter and Li Jun Ji’s Anna May Wong-esque character but short-shifts them to some extent. He’s trying to evoke the racism of the era, but both storylines arguably deserve more nuanced treatment. Here they feel tacked on, although both give excellent performances. Technically, the film is impeccable, with gorgeous photography by Linus Sandgren and a bouncy jazz score by Justin Hurwitz. It’s obvious Paramount spared no expense in bringing Chazelle’s vision to the big screen.
In the end, Babylon is truly a mixed bag. The filmmaking is technically brilliant, but the storytelling is hit-and-miss. While it still deserves to be seen (in theaters), it’s also frustratingly evocative of other, much-better movies, specifically The Wolf of Wall Street and Boogie Nights. Chazelle seems focused on making the anti-La La Land, where this version of Hollywood is a cesspool that crushes dreams rather than makes them come true. He seems overly preoccupied with being provocative. While undeniably entertaining, Babylon is all over the place, although it’s so out there I wouldn’t be surprised if it develops a cult following at some point.