Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

"Babylon is disgusting, muddled in intent, absurd in its trajectory and at times baffling in its tonal choices. And yet I would not call a moment of its 189 minutes boring." | Photo: Paramount Pictures

In case you were under the impression that Damien Chazelle’s Babylon was going to be a stately period epic, 2.5st of elephant dung plops onto our hero during the first five minutes to prove you wrong. The film has so many competing moods — epic and sophomoric, wistful and scandalous, romantic and horrifying — that it struggles to form a coherent picture of early Hollywood. But it sure has fun trying.

Babylon is disgusting, muddled in intent, absurd in its trajectory and at times baffling in its tonal choices. And yet I would not call a moment of its 189 minutes boring. In fact, some of the best filmmaking of writer/director Chazelle’s career is wading amongst the blendof bodily fluids.

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The character taking a load of dung is Manny (Diego Calva), who, we learn, is not transporting the animal for a movie shoot, but for an industry party of bacchanalian proportions. He’s done such a good job at arranging parties that his boss won’t let him fulfill his dream of working in film. At the party, he helps out a drugged-up party crasher and makes fast friends aiding and abetting her. Played by Margot Robbie with true super star quality, Nellie LaRoy is a firecracker of an actress just waiting to be discovered.

That party introduces us to a variety of characters whose lives weave in and out of the film. Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad, a handsome leading man with an uncanny ability to get married and divorced in short order — one marriage even ends as he arrives at the party. Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu, a lesbian cabaret singer with a gift for writing intertitles who would have likely been a huge star in a less whitewashed era. Jovan Adepo plays Jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer, whose fame only has room to grow with the rise of sound, although that also means conforming to America’s racist standards. And Jean Smart plays Elinor St John, a gossip columnist who documents everyone’s rise and fall.

Both Manny and Nellie get their breaks in the hungover aftermath of that grand party — Manny because he gets to take Jack Condrad home, and earns his good graces in the process, and Nellie because she ends up being asked to fill in for another actress who took too many drugs with a sleazy star, giving her the opportunity to upstage the leading actress in a production. That may seem improbable, but the real improbability is that anyone at that party made it to set the morning after consuming that many drugs.

While several real-life stars get name dropped, the main characters are all fictional, though clearly inspired by real screen icons. This gives Chazelle infinite wiggle room for dramatic license as well as free reign to delve into juicy rumors without being accused of historical inaccuracies.

Structurally, the film has been compared to Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 epic tale of the porn industry. It’s hard not to notice the similarities in the film’s dramatic beats, from character deaths to industry transitions that cause a shift in characters’ fortunes. In this case the shift to sound film production in the 1930s prompts the same descent into darkness as the shift to video production of porn does in Anderson’s 1980s. We even get a descent into madness with a gangster, played by Tobey Maguire as a madman who wants to show off the brave new underbelly of the LA River.

The best moments in the film are the two about actually making movies. A majestic sequence early in the film crosscuts between Jack and Manny on the set of a historic epic war film and Nellie on a lower-profile melodrama where she’s supposed to be the supporting character. When the director (Olivia Hamilton) realises Nellie can cry on command — to a specific number of tears, no less! — she becomes passionate engaged in the poetry and lighting of the scene. Meanwhile, Jack’s shoot has lost ten cameras while filming a battle scene, so Manny is tasked with borrowing a camera and getting back to set before sundown.

If that scene combines improvisation and passion, the sound era production combines awkward obstacles and frustration. Chazelle emphasises the importance of hitting your mark for the microphone with tracking shots of Robbie’s legs. The days of doing what feels right in the scene have died in favor of rigid restrictions in the name of microphone placement. The frustration of mechanical limitations is gloriously and heartbreakingly apparent.

Where Chazelle’s thesis doesn’t quite land is in the depiction of the supposed “golden age” versus the modern. There was indeed a Wild West element to early Hollywood, as we were a long way from union rules and safety protocols. But Chazelle depicts a hedonism and disregard for human life that feels utterly over the top. Carelessness in safety protocols does not mean apathy at the sight of someone dying in reality, but in Chazelle’s Hollywood it sure does. Watching one shoot day as depicted in Babylon, you might assume that 30 people died a week in the movie industry, and no one much noticed or cared about any of them. And Nellie’s love for cocaine seems so much stronger than her love for acting that it’s hard to feel for the collapse of her profession.

If that were the extent of Babylon’s artistic goals, this wouldn’t be an issue, but Chazelle shows a clear desire to create a wistful nostalgia for this bygone era, and that’s where the film struggles to pull itself together. Everything he shows us suggests that this was not a good era, that many bad things happened and no one had freedom. As a more conservative era rises, it becomes clear that maybe the madcap era was a better era. Maybe that’s Chazelle’s point, but, sadly, that doesn’t land as profoundly as we wanted it to.

Reviewed on: 12 Feb 2023
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Babylon packshot
The rise and fall of stars against a background of 1920s Hollywood.
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Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle

Starring: Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Brad Pitt, Jimmy Ortega, Li Jun Li, Jovan Adepo, JC Currais, Jean Smart

Year: 2022

Runtime: 189 minutes


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