At only 38 years old, Damien Chazelle has a short but impressive filmography as a director. “Whiplash” won three Oscars; “La La Land” won six. (For a few seconds, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and everyone else thought it had won seven, but that’s another story.) And “First Man” may have won just one Oscar, but that movie was still pretty darn fantastic. So does “Babylon,” his latest film, measure up to the rest of his oeuvre? Well, depends who you ask— few recent movies have been this polarizing.
There is no debate, however, about the principal cast of “Babylon,” which is absolutely top-notch. In the lead role (despite what it says on the poster), Margot Robbie plays the rising starlet Nellie LaRoy with a fearless abandon bordering on insanity. (But while she is extremely effective here, she is in very real danger of being typecast— her Nellie, right down to the accent, is really just Harley Quinn without the mallet.) Hollywood icon Brad Pitt plays… erm… Hollywood icon Jack Conrad with his usual effortless charisma, this time tinged with a subtle hint of deep-seated insecurity. His performance is a reminder of his status as one of The Last True Movie Stars; when he is on the screen, it’s almost impossible to look at anything else. (Oh, and he is also absolutely hilarious.) Rounding out the main cast is Mexican newcomer Diego Calva, who plays immigrant Manny Torres with an easy charm, coupled with a down-to-earth relatability that makes him the perfect audience surrogate.
“Babylon” tracks the rise and fall of these three main characters (with a few others thrown in for good measure), exposing the depravity and outrageous excesses of early Hollywood. To emphasize this decadence, the movie treats us— although anyone who has seen the film will know that “treat” is not quite the right word— to extended sequences involving elephant defecation, random violence, graphic sex acts that are more disgusting than titillating, copious drug use, “golden showers” (don’t Google that), and cocaine-stealing chickens— and that’s just in the first ten minutes. These early scenes are clearly meant to provoke, repulse, and shock in equal measure, just as the Biblical Babylon must have done for early Christians; they are also a way to prepare us for the stomach-churning depravity yet to come.
Disappointingly (or happily, depending on your point of view), it never really does; because despite a few more similarly outrageous scenes peppered throughout this piece (parties, orgies, underground freak shows, etc.), most of the film is a grounded, engaging drama featuring believable characters dealing with life, love, loss, death, and surprisingly little elephant poop.
While it is an interesting directorial idea to balance the outrageous and the dramatic; the results on display are rather mixed. In the hands of a director more accustomed to such wild swings of mood and tone, such as Baz Luhrmann or Edgar Wright, the resultant movie would somehow still be cohesive. Regrettably, “Babylon” often feels like two films that have been unceremoniously smashed together.
Luckily, both of the disparate halves are still extremely entertaining. The secret to this is simple: Damien Chazelle really, really loves movies. So unsurprisingly, it is in its depiction of moviemaking where “Babylon” truly comes alive. The scenes of filmmaking in the silent era, and then later in the age of talkies, plus the obvious tributes to classic films like “Singing In The Rain,” are all alternately hilarious, tense, dramatic, and exhilarating— a true movie lover’s dream. These moments are infused with such a wild, madcap energy that they render the scenes of depravity almost redundant, leaving one to wonder how much better the movie might have been without them.
It certainly would have been shorter. Clocking in at a frankly ridiculous three hours and nine minutes (!), this film suffers from trying to tell too many stories. Did we really need the subplot of the enigmatic Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), the last-minute racism story of Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), or any of half a dozen other narrative threads? While everyone involved did an admirable job, the film would have been much better— or at least much less unfocused— without these plotlines.
All that said, I never got bored watching “Babylon,” not even for a single minute. The movie only really lost me in its final scene— literally the last two minutes or so— which overstates its themes in an unnecessary, obvious, heavy-handed, self-indulgent, and awkwardly messy finale that almost ruins the entire experience. (Almost, but not quite.)
Still, it’s worth a watch— if only to see what all the critics are arguing about. See it yourself and join the debate.
4 crowns: excellent
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