I am a huge admirer of director Damien Chazelle. His previous films have all been in my top 20 best movies of the year. Whiplash was extraordinary. La La Land I fell in love with, and First Man was a visual treat. Now we get Babylon, a breathtaking, roller-coaster ride through the early days of Hollywood, warts and all. Unfortunately, as the technical achievements cannot be ignored and elements are some of his best work to date, as a whole, Babylon is way too ambitious and thus is a three-hour mess of a film. Signs that a wunderkind of modern cinema can be given far too much rope by a studio and the results are never successful.
Hollywood in the 1920s was a wild and crazy place. By day, multiple films are being made, some minor, some epic. By night, the parties are loud, extreme and debaucherous. Within this whirlwind of existence are four people: Jack Conrad, a smooth, womaniser who is at the top of his game as a star in the movie industry. Nellie LeRoy is a wild child who dreams of being a movie star and who proves there is nothing she is willing to do to achieve fame. Sidney Palmer, a jazz trumpeter, is at the heart of these parties and just loves the music, and finally, Manny Torres, a Spanish man who dreams of being on a movie set, finds himself in charge of productions. Four dreamers whose lives intertwine.
The film starts with a delightful moment of an elephant evacuating himself on the camera. This sets the tone that this isn’t going to hold back when it comes to lurid acts of debauchery while at the same time trying to be as classy an affair as you would expect in a movie in Hollywood. The parties certainly get wild, but all work and no play is the motto during the day as the studios try to create as many movies as possible. Chazelle doesn’t allow us any time to soak in the entire atmosphere of the parties. They are loud, confused events that has the camera work zooming here, there and everywhere, never allowing us to focus on one event or moment. Like the multiple stages crammed together on the lot, where one is shooting a western while another is shooting a melodrama, the screen is busy, busy, busy, with a breakneck pace, even if it has three hours to fill.
This is one of the problems of the film. It never gives the audience time to take in the sights. It comes across as being far too impressed with itself. Glorious colours, plenty of extras, and fabulous costumes but we are never allowed to enjoy them. Even Chazelle’s camera work becomes too much after a while, only standing still for the more dramatic moments while zooming all over the place during the parties and big set pieces. Taking a huge chuck of ideas from Kenneth Anger’s infamous book, Hollywood Babylon, which details some of the more outrageous scandals of early Hollywood (a reference to silent comic Fatty Arbuckle’s career-destroying antics is represented here), Chazelle tries to balance the pros and cons of the city, by giving us one man to see all through his eyes: Manny. An innocent caught up in a world he never truly understands but knows he is in love with the untouchable Nellie. His story keeps the interest throughout.
Chazelle gives us impressive moments. The epic movie that is out-of-control leading to Manny saving the day by getting a spare camera for one last shot works well, while the scene where the studio has to deal with sound for the first time, is a hoot reminiscent of Singin’ In The Rain. This film is often referenced up to the final sequence when the film is being shown in an LA cinema. Also, one of Chazelle’s downfalls is trying to make something as good as the 1952 classic, and never reaching the mark.
For three hours, the film jumps from one storyline to another, allowing some to go on longer than others. Sydney Palmer, the jazz trumpeter has a moment where he is forced to blacken his face with charcoal, so he looks as dark as his fellow musicians; it is a powerful sequence that deserves so much more time than it gets. At the same time, a scene in which Nelly takes on a rattlesnake in a fight is far too long and chaotic to care about the outcome.
This feels like a movie made in the 70s, where the studio has a successful director, and they tell them to go make the movie they want to make, and so instead of the restrictions of budget and time, blows everything up 200% and presents a film of half ideas and very undisciplined. (take Spielberg’s 1941 as an example, although I like the noisy, over-the-top comedy). I liked plenty of things about this film, and plenty I didn’t.
The performances are a mixed bag as well. Brad Pitt has all the charm to play Conrad, but it’s never enough to care about the character’s arc. Margot Robbie is perfectly cast as Nellie, a woman out to make a name for herself but having no self-control, as drugs and gambling take over. In some moments, she is mesmerizing. Others are just plain annoying. There’s a delicious cameo from a creepy Tobey Maguire, and Jean Smart brings a bit of class as a gossip journalist. Yet the film is saved by Diego Calva as Manny. He is a man who comes from nowhere, without any real explanation as to who he was or is, to a man with extreme power in an industry that loves you one moment then hates you the next. He shines in this mess.
Babylon isn’t awful. As I said, it has some great moments, but great moments a three-hour-long movie doesn’t make. It’s far too long, too uncontrolled and too showy for its own good. A pity as this is a blip in Chazelle’s otherwise perfect resume.
3 out of 5
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jeam Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li,Tobey Maguire, Flea
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Running Time 189 mins
Release date: 20th January 2023