Director Damien Chazelle
Writer Damien Chazelle
Stars Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Jean Smart, Olivia Wilde, J.C. Currais
Running Time 3h 8m
Genres Comedy, Drama, History
The best thing about Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” is that major Hollywood studios like Paramount are still around to spend a tonne of money on self-serving extravagances. It’s strangely reassuring. The movie industry stays true to the conviction that viewers would turn out to watch a tribute to its favourite subject: itself, despite all the real and imagined existential challenges it is experiencing, including its agonies about the future of theatrical exhibition and of streaming. So props to Paramount, which also produced “Top Gun: Maverick,” this year’s box office champ; at the very least, “Babylon” is more evidence of life.
In line with an industry that has a history of supersizing itself in times of crisis, it’s also a bloated mistake. In order to tell his story, Chazelle has gone back in time to the years just before the industry adopted synchronised sound as the norm. In broad strokes, he characterises this epoch as one of unrestrained personal freedom, when people in the film industry party wildly, downing mountains of alcohol while snorting Sahara-sized dunes of narcotics and joylessly writhing to jazzy squalling. The wild partygoers then wandered outside in the scorching California sun for another day of filming the next morning.
“Babylon,” written by Chazelle, centres on three industry types: a powerful star, a soon-to-be starlet, and an up-and-coming executive. These three people’s lives first collide at a wild party full of revellers who were thrashing around wildly, their mouths, arms, legs, breasts, and various other body parts flapping in mock ecstasy. Jack Conrad, an M.G.M. superstar with a handsome moustache, a run of songs, and a romantic life that is as strong as his health despite his drinking, is the star (Brad Pitt in typical smooth form). When Jack requests many drinks from a flirtatious waitress, the humour of the film and director Damien Chazelle’s amused style are hinted at. He slurps copious amounts of liquid before actively engaging the server.
Jack’s drinking is, for Chazelle, a symbol of the unrestrained spirit of the era before the fun was spoiled by, well, it’s unclear by whom, since the only serious antagonist is a gangster played by a convincingly repulsive Tobey Maguire. Jack’s drinking is similar to the powder nasally vacuumed by another partygoer, a grasping would-be star, Nellie LaRoy (a badly used Margot Robbie), Wall Street, which has harmed cinema more than any other organisation, is noticeably absent. One of Jack and Nellie’s most distinguishing characteristics and a consistent source of forced humour is their ability to perform no matter what, both on and off camera.
For the majority of the first two hours, Jack, Nellie, and Mexican naif Manny Torres (Diego Calva), whom Jack recruits as an assistant, alternate restlessly. Manny quickly takes on more responsibilities and eventually becomes a studio executive, a more direct path than either Jack or Nellie’s hairpin turns. Manny is a quick, clever problem solver and a total kind guy. Manny stands out as a minority immigrant working in a largely white industry, but he is also a survivor who is flexible and open to change. Like Calva, Manny is endearing despite the fact that the character is absurdly sweet for a cornball Hollywood aspirant. But it’s never entirely apparent what drives him, and most of the time he serves as the audience’s stand-in, a goofy observer of the antics.
Calva’s performance is more in line with modern ideas of realism since he is more subdued and reactive than Pitt and especially Robbie, who both provide larger-than-life, occasionally cartoonish, more physically expressive performances. These variations increase complexity and provide crucial rhythmic adjustments. In “Babylon,” like his characters, director Damien Chazelle has adopted excess as a guiding principle. Like his previous film, “La La Land,” this one alternates between intimate moments and lavish set pieces, with the main difference being that Chazelle now has a larger budget and is eager to show off his new toys. The camera doesn’t fly during the initial bacchanal; instead, it darts and swoops like a buzzed hummingbird.
The film feels oddly dry despite the constant churn on set and after hours. I don’t just mean that it’s unattractive (which it is), but also that there isn’t much character development despite the rapid action. If the first two hours weren’t so unrelievedly unmodulated, with everything synced to the same repetitive, increased tempo, there might be something to watch besides the spectacle of its busy, spinning pieces. The tale and Chazelle’s idea of the delirious excess of the time are first served by this hyperventilated quality, but the lack of modulation soon becomes exhausting. It eventually becomes punishing.
Chazelle’s emphasis on the protagonists’ use of drugs, alcohol, and rough living has a childish and ironically puritanical quality, and it’s not just because it doesn’t seem like much fun. You can see their technique, stamina, mistakes, upstaging tactics, power movements, and bloodshot eyes. They work and party, hit targets and let loose, follow instructions and run amok. Jack, Nellie, and Manny all speak about the magic (or whatever) of movies and appear to like making movies, or at least the benefits. The true scandal is that there is nothing unique about their films, which Chazelle makes look foolish, slapdash, and ugly. However, their off-screen behaviours aren’t intriguing — people use drugs and have sex, big whoop — and people do those things because it’s normal.
The industry’s transition to sync sound was revolutionary and fascinating, but not in the ways that are apparent in this film, in part because director Damien Chazelle isn’t overly concerned with historical truth. Instead, he has created a Hollywood counterhistory with “Babylon” that concentrates on the purported excesses of the time and refutes (and revels in) the industry’s meticulously cleaned, lofty image. Revisionist interpretations like this are nothing new; movies like parodying and revisiting their own works. In his Netflix series “Hollywood,” Ryan Murphy took a different approach, wishing to remake history so that everyone that the business mistreated or excluded — men and women of colour, gay and straight — would succeed.
Positive role models or societal advancement are not a concern for Chazelle. He is mostly fascinated by what Hollywood attempted to hide, especially in the wake of some widely reported scandals in the 1920s. The industry started enhancing its image and rigidly implementing its self-drafted Production Code in an effort to divert attention away from the federal government and the threat of censorship it posed (no extramarital sex, etc.). In order to feed the veiled innuendo of gossip columnists and tabloid magazines, the studios and their fixers presented artists as ideals in public while secretly enabling abortions, concealing affairs, and keeping performers in the closet.
There are parts of “Babylon,” like one of its set pieces or Nellie’s expertly staged sobs, where you can imagine what it might have been if director Damien Chazelle had given as much attention to the era’s films, their pleasure and beauty, as it did to its gruesome tales. The famed M.G.M. producer Irving Thalberg (Max Minghella), who ruined Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 classic “Greed,” is among the many characters he crams in. Another character who appears in “Babylon” is a clownish Stroheim-like figure played for laughs, as is the epic he’s directing. The one thing that best characterised the silent age and to which Chazelle remains bewilderingly clueless is missing here, as it is throughout this dismal film: its art.