Film Review – Babylon
If La La Land (2016) was Damien Chazelle’s ode to the romantic dream that is Hollywood, then Babylon (2022) is his impression of it as a nightmare. This is Tinseltown at its worst – a land of decadence, drugs, sex, and death. The allure of fame is an addiction, where one hit can send someone into the sky only to crash and burn soon after. Chazelle – who writes and directs – pulls out all the stops. He takes us on a three-hour trip inside the movie industry in the early part of the 20th century. And while the ride is breathtaking, even beautiful at times, we come away wondering what he is trying to say. It’s no secret that the movie business can be a reckless place, where souls come and go in the blink of an eye. But is there anything else besides that?
The title calls to mind Kenneth Anger’s infamous book, Hollywood Babylon, which detailed the scandals of notable Hollywood types during the same period. Stories of debauched parties, infidelities, and murder are littered throughout its pages. Chazelle takes a similar approach. He opens with an extended scene of an all-night party. Linus Sandgren’s camera zooms up and down – from high crane angles to smooth Steadicam shots – revealing the myriad of naked bodies pulsating to Justin Hurwitz’s energetic music. The editing (Tom Cross) cuts between various areas, from people dancing in the hallway to those in the backrooms engaged in seedier activities. The energy is so high that the discovery of a corpse isn’t really that big of a shock. The sequence sets the tone, ushering us to the insanity that happens afterward.
Amongst the crowd are our three main characters. Nellie (Margot Robbie) is an actress willing to do anything to get inside the door. She is a fireball, undeterred by any obstacles. With unkempt hair and heavy make-up, we sense a level of desperation in Nellie. If anything, she will have her way through sheer force of will. Her goal is to have a life similar to our second protagonist, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt). Jack is a star of silent movies, whose days consist of booze and women. Even with his fast-paced lifestyle, Jack sees himself as an artist. He exudes charisma – the moment he walks into a room he becomes the center of attention. Once the cameras start rolling, all his problems and frustrations melt away, leaving only his natural magnetism. In the middle of it all is Manny (Diego Calva), a Mexican American who harbors idealistic feelings about the movies. Manny believes in the “magic” of filmmaking, going on long diatribes about “escaping” into other worlds through the big screen. He is the central character and acts as a stand in for the audience. The narrative follows Nellie, Jack, and Manny during and after the party, each one affected by the changing landscape of the industry.
The pacing moves at a breathless tenacity, as though this were a coked-up fever dream. Jump cuts transport us to different places at different times so quickly that we barely have a second to catch our bearings. The camera never sits still – it is constantly whipping around in a frenzy, taking in as much visual detail before being swept off somewhere else. Imagine the climactic showdown of Whiplash (2014) extended into feature length form, and you’ll be close to the sensations here. At its best, Chazelle’s approach captures the whirlwind life of moviemaking. At this time, different productions had outdoor sets placed right next to each other, with cast and crew running back and forth in nonstop commotion. We also see how tedious things can get. When Nellie tries to perform a scene, everything must be perfect. The sound, dialogue, camera, lighting, and timing must be in sync for the scene to work. The slightest slip (like a mild cough) can disrupt the entire process. Seeing this, we marvel at how any movie – especially during the advent of the sound era – was ever completed at all.
Work hard, party hard – that is the nature of showbusiness. In this regard, Chazelle accomplishes what he sets out to do. The film’s central weakness, which ends up pulling the rug from under its sleek construction, is that it is only about its excess. It revels in its outrageousness, opting to push the limits of depravity but never digging deeper than that. Did we really need the constant poop and vomit jokes? Is this meant to be a satirical account or a nostalgic one? Living on such a high wire can only lead to disaster, and there are times where characters descend to depths that look like hell on earth. But these instances are juxtaposed with them reminiscing about the good old days. So, which one is it? We see a character enter a theater and watch a movie, a smile brimming across their face. Why are they smiling? After all the mayhem, is Chazelle relieved that things are not like it was, or is he longing for the past? Is the smile supposed to be ambiguous?
Watching this, I was reminded of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wallstreet (2013). That too was an exercise in indulgence, with characters living in equally (if not more) extreme measures. The difference is that Scorsese’s film took a clear perspective over its material. It was not a celebration but a cautionary tale, examining how a society built on capitalism can give birth to such lowlife people. That level of insight is missing in Babylon. Chazelle’s film operates in a single gear, stuffed with a lot of action but without much to say. This is best exemplified in Margot Robbie’s performance. Robbie is one of the most talented actors currently working, it’s no surprise she appears in both this and Wolf. But her work as Nellie is one of her weaker turns. The character is written and directed to be flamboyant with little variation. Yes, we get moments of her revealing a vulnerable side, but those are fleeting. It’s a testament to Robbie’s skill that she can make the most of those opportunities, because the character often calls on her to simply be as big as possible.
Damien Chazelle is at his best when merging crisp, bold imagery with heart-racing music. That’s how he can make a biopic like First Man (2018) still have the mood and rhythms of a musical. However, in Babylon, his aim is further than his reach. It’s undoubtably his vision, but I sensed his soul wasn’t entirely in it. He clearly has strong feelings about the industry he is employed in, and his technical prowess is a strong as it’s ever been. But in the grand view of his career, I suspect his relationship with Hollywood leans more toward La La Land than it does here.