“Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is a sweeping portrait of late 1920s Hollywood that just happens to be one of the boldest and best films you’ll see this year.”
Damien Chazelle’s bravura visual style
Linus Sandgren’s gorgeous, versatile film
Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt and Li Jun Li’s scene-stealing performances
Several storylines feel smaller than others
A sound mix that is sometimes a little too shaky
A bold finale that doesn’t quite land
Kind of like the cursed elephant rampaging through his opening party sequence, Damien Chazelles Babylon is a beast of a movie. Over the course of its 188-minute runtime, the film maintains its cocaine-fueled, frenetic pace even as it dives headlong into moments of wild beauty, old-fashioned melodrama, bitter fury and — perhaps most surprisingly of all — Lynchian horror. As an exploration of Hollywood’s debauched origins, the film has drawn plenty of inevitable comparisons to American epics such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie nightswhich similarly charts the sex-crazed rise and fall of one sector of the entertainment industry.
Chazelle, for his part, often invites those comparisons. Babylons elaborate camera movements and anguished editing feel strikingly similar to the bravura visual style on display in its 1997 predecessor. Even a scene involving a yellow-toothed Tobey Maguire feels like a direct riff on the iconic drug-deal-gone-wrong set piece that ends Boogie nights‘ second half. But beyond its structural and visual similarities, there’s very little that connects Babylon to Boogie nights or Casino or any of the other American epics it has been compared to in recent weeks.
It’s because Babylon have more in common with MagnoliaPaul Thomas Anderson’s unwieldy follow-up from 1999 to Boogie nightsthan any other film. Both films are not only three-hour epics containing multiple intersecting stories, but they are also attempts by their writers and directors to understand how ugliness and beauty can coexist in the world and within each of us. In the case of BabylonChazelle has created an orgiastic, multi-layered film that ultimately asks a simple question: Is it possible to love movies and yet hate the industry that produces them at the same time?
Chazelle explores that conflict through all of the film’s characters, including Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a silent film star who is the unofficial king of Hollywood when Babylon beginning in the late 1920s. Jack is a womanizing drunk whose belief in the power of film alternates between arrogant and childish. Jack is invested in nothing more than pushing the boundaries of the silent film form. In other words, he is totally unprepared for the great shift that will reshape Hollywood once sound enters the picture.
However, Jack is not the only one unprepared for what lies ahead. There’s also Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an aspiring actress from the East Coast who arrives in Hollywood with little to her name except her own confidence and self-professed “star power.” Nellie quickly woos Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant who dreams of becoming a big Hollywood wig. Manny crosses paths with Nellie below Babylons sickeningly indulgent opening party sequence and the two quickly bond over their shared ambitions. As Manny, Calva gives a deep, soulful performance, and his role as BabylonThe audience surrogate only makes his eventual moral and romantic unraveling that much more affecting.
Nellie doesn’t just catch Manny’s attention when she crashes Babylons raucous opening party, which is filled with so many naked bodies, mountains of drugs, bottles of champagne and sex that it’s impossible not to be reminded of other, equally hyper-focused films like The Wolf of Wall Street. Nellie’s wild, attention-grabbing dance across the party’s grand hall earns her a part in a movie, where her undeniable screen presence and ability to cry on cue pave the way for her to become the next breakout star of blockbuster movies.
Hollywood’s inevitable transition from its silent era is quickly turning everyone’s world upside down. Nellie’s belief that she had finally escaped the kind of judgment that had defined her early life, for example, is shattered when her voice and East Coast demeanor become talking points among Hollywood’s elite. Jack’s unruffled presence similarly begins to crumble, while Manny is forced to comply with a number of soul-deadening demands if he hopes to remain in the same Hollywood sphere he fought so long to break into.
After establishing herself as a multi-talented performer and mid-title writer, Lady Fay Zhu (a scene-stealing Li Jun Li) finds herself slowly shut out of the Hollywood system due to “concerns” about her sexual relationships with women. Elsewhere, Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a master trumpet player whose musicianship briefly makes him a Hollywood star, eventually finds himself facing the kind of racist practices that have long been used to marginalize or keep people of color out of the film industry for decades.
For their part, both Adepo and Li turn in potentially star-making performances in roles that, despite Babylons impressive runtime, still feels like they were trimmed down during the editing process. Among the film’s supporting players, Jean Smart also practically steals some scenes as Elinor St. John, a tabloid journalist who takes it on in one of the Babylons best moments to give Pitt’s Jack a frank lesson in how Hollywood can both guarantee a person’s immortality and see them as completely disposable at the same time.
After operating in a steadily light mood for much of the BabylonIn the first half, Pitt begins to shine when Jack’s identity crisis kicks in. Very few films have ever used Pitt’s bright blue eyes as well as Babylon, giving the actor a chance to turn in some of his most observant, quietly heartbreaking work to date. Margot Robbie, conversely, never lets her energy down Babylonwhich means that Nellie’s confident, fiery spirit in the film’s first half eventually turns into a kind of raw, manic, pout-cheeked desperation.
Behind the camera, Chazelle is as visually commanding as he’s ever been. Reunited with La La Land biographer Linus Sandgren, Chazelle fills Babylon with some of the most elaborate camera movements and crane shots of his career, including a last-minute sweep through a packed movie theater that’s so technically impressive it’s impossible not to be amazed by it. The film’s heavy emphasis on blues, whites and bright reds also imbues it with a visual energy to match its high, twisted pace. Editor Tom Cross often cuts and overlaps multiple scenes together and injects Babylon with a breakneck pace that makes its massive runtime fly by surprisingly quickly.
The film’s visual and geographical relationship to La La Land, Chazelle’s previous treatise on the power of film, is also literalized by composer Justin Hurwitz’s suitably loud and free-flowing jazz score. Together, Hurwitz and Chazelle literally reuse certain themes and motifs from La La Landwhich only makes the dirty, uneven nature of the Babylon feels even more like a full-fledged response to the more polished, sanitized exploration of Hollywood that Chazelle delivered back in 2016. All of the film’s musings on Hollywood and filmmaking then culminate in a finale so brazen and operatic that it’s practically impossible not to to be surprised by Chazelles, well, guts.
The fact that Babylon‘s finale doesn’t quite work is beside the point. What’s more important is the reckless, French New Wave-inspired energy that runs through the film’s final moments, recalling not only the work of filmmakers like Godard and Truffaut but also Paul Thomas Anderson, who back in 1999 chose to end his most ambitious Los Angeles- odyssey by frogs literally falling from the sky. While BabylonThe finale isn’t quite as fantastical or surreal as that, it pulses with a similar kind of fearlessness. For better or for worse, it’s hard to imagine Chazelle ending Babylon in any other way than he.
Over the film’s massive and yet paradoxically all-too-short three-hour running time, Chazelle expresses his all-too-absorbing reverence and distaste for the films. The true brilliance of BabylonThe finale, however, lies in how it so clearly sees that any attempt to understand how someone can both love and hate the films at the same time will fail. After all, movies are as inexplicable as the people who watch them.
Given the conditions in which they are made, no film should work, and yet so many do. IN BabylonDamien Chazelle tries to ask why – only to give up when he realizes to his horror and surprise that there is no answer to that question. There is only the canvas and you sit there looking up at it and cry even when your better self knows you shouldn’t. Behold! The magic of movies.
Babylon now playing in cinemas across the country.